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September 06, 2011

4 Journalists Face Terrorism Charges in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has filed terrorism charges against two Swedish journalists arrested in July in the company of rebel fighters in the restive Ogaden region. Two Ethiopian journalists are also facing terrorism charges in a separate case.

Ethiopian officials say the two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, were taken before a judge in Addis Ababa this week and charged under a newly-enacted anti-terrorism law. They were ordered held until a further court appearance October 17.

The pair was captured July 1 after a gun battle between Ethiopian forces and rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Force.  News reports at the time said at least 15 ONLF fighters were killed in the fight and one of the journalists was wounded.

The ONLF has been fighting since the mid-1980s for self-determination of the Ogaden, or Somali region in eastern Ethiopia, bordering Somalia.

The two freelance journalists had reportedly been travelling with ONLF fighters for a story on the drought and malnutrition crisis in parts of eastern Ethiopia where the rebels are active.

But prosecutors say the pair had entered the country illegally and were promoting terrorism through their professional activities.  The Ethiopian government has classified the ONLF as a terrorist group.

The charges against the Swedish reporters came the same day as two Ethiopian journalists working for private media appeared in court in a separate terrorism case.

Wubshet Taye, deputy editor of the Amharic language Awramba Times and columnist Reiyot Alemu of the Feteh newspaper have been held without bail since their arrests in June.  They were detained days after Reiyot Alemu wrote a column sharply critical of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the EPRDF.  Both were ordered this week to remain in custody until October 18th to allow more time for preparation of the case against them.

In a telephone interview, Awramba Times Editor-in-Chief Dawit Kebede rejected the terrorism charge against his deputy.  He said the charges are part of a government campaign to intimidate independent media.

"This is an act of sending the private media to the recycling bin. This is the approach of the government but it has nothing to do with terrorism," he said. "For this government terrorism means being critical of its policies."

The new anti-terrorism law under which the journalists are charged has come in for sharp criticism from human rights and press freedom groups.  The statute criminalizes any reporting authorities deem to "encourage" or "provide moral support" to groups and causes the government labels as "terrorists."

Members of the United Nations Human Rights Committee have described the law as "overly vague."  One committee member recently told an Ethiopian representative “the vague language in the statute allows the criminalization of acts that are not really acts of terrorism."

Five organizations have been named as terrorist groups under the law, including the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF.  Two prominent opposition politicians were among 29 members of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo community detained last month under the law.  

Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, comprising more than 30 percent of the population.