The Ethiopian government will release two imprisoned Swedish journalists, as part of an annual mass amnesty to mark Ethiopia’s New Year. Some 1900 prisoners are part of an official pardon granted by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, were convicted of supporting an illegal terrorist group and crossing the border without proper documentation. They were sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, welcomed the decision.
“We still believe that they should never have been jailed, because they were carrying out legitimate news-gathering activities,” Mohamed Keita, the group’s Africa advocacy coordinator said on Monday.
He added that the journalists were forced to admit to guilt in order to receive the pardon, though the terrorism charges were “a crime they did not commit.”
“They [the journalists] took the risk of entering the country illegally only because of the Ethiopian government’s restrictions and censorship banning independent media access to the Ogaden, and these are practices that reporters and news organizations the world over engage in to cover both sides of the story," he said. "There are serious allegations of abuses in the Ogaden that the Ethiopian government denies, but it is not providing an opportunity for international or local media to independently report or investigate.”
Keita said CPJ hopes the country will use the opportunity of Meles’ death to loosen what he says are restrictions on journalists operating in Ethiopia.
“We believe they have an opportunity to usher in national reconciliation,” he said, “and to turn the page. And they have an opportunity to do so by releasing the six other journalists behind bars.”
In July, prominent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega was jailed for 18 years for what the government said was breaching anti-terror laws, while Andualem Arage, a member of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, was given a life term in prison.