Swedish journalists explain arrest, imprisonment in Ethiopia

Johan Persson (left) and Martin Schibbye (right)

October 12, 2012 (Poynter) — For 438 days, two Swedish freelance journalists were locked up in Ethiopian prisons for illegally entering the country and committing acts of terrorism. Prior to their arrest, journalists had been working in the northern part of the country, but the south is where Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were headed when they were caught. No journalists have ventured into southern Ogaden due to extreme danger and political instability.

Schibbye and Persson were arrested while traveling with outlawed guerilla group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

The Ethiopian courts provided video footage of the two journalists collaborating with the ONLF. On Dec. 27, 2011 they were sentenced to 11 years in jail.

After a bizarre and convoluted set of events, which included the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the two were freed and sent back to Sweden.

They arrived home Sept. 14, 2012. I interviewed them together via Skype on Monday, Sept. 24.

Poynter: What drew you to Ethiopia in the first place?

Schibbye: We tried to be proactive and see what impact oil exploration would have on the area. There were a lot of things written about the Ogaden but no one had actually set foot in the oil fields. We said, “Let’s try and use our feet more than Google to cover this story.”

Persson: Other journalists have been there, including from The New York Times, but they’d never gone south in to the actual oil fields.

How did you arrange to illegally cross the border?

Schibbye: We contacted the ONLF and asked them if they could be our guide and get us in to the oil fields where this Swedish company [Africa Oil] is active. They said yes, and so we chose to be embedded with them.

What is the timeline from when you entered Ethiopia and when you were arrested?

Schibbye: We crossed on June 27th and immediately it goes wrong. We were chased in the desert for 30 or 40 minutes by the Ethiopian army, but managed to get away. On the evening of June 30th, I hear one gun shot. Seconds later, the whole area exploded with Kalashnikov fire. I got hit in the shoulder and Johan gets hit in the arm.

There is a four-day gap between your arrest and your arrival in prison. What happened during those days?

Schibbye: We were arrested on June 30th and held in the desert up to July 4th. For four days, the longest and worst of my life, they brought in military journalists to make a mockumentary about what happened. They gave us new clothes and they told us to co-operate or we would be shot. They drove us around to different locations; it was like a Steven Spielberg film.

Persson: Martin was mock executed and I thought he was dead.

Schibbye: The film’s director was the vice-president of the Ogaden. He was in contact with the president of the Ogaden all the time. At one moment I get to speak to [the president] on the phone and he tells us, “We are not happy with your performance. So tomorrow we’ll have to do it again and you have to confess you are terrorists.”

During the early days in prison, what was going through your heads?

Schibbye: We tried to think like journalists. During one of the interrogations, I managed to steal two pieces of paper and hide them in my shoe. So, after the interrogations I could write, word-by-word, what was said. It kept you going.

What was the hardest thing about confinement?

Persson: If you speak about politics, you’re reported immediately to the secret police.

Schibbye: You get points. If I see someone smoking and report them to the police I get 10 points. It’s a system that promotes snitching. The view I had of prison was it’s us against them. It’s nothing like that. It’s everybody against everybody.

What is the connection between Meles Zenawi’s death and your release?

Schibbye: He promised the Swedish foreign minister [Carl Bildt] in May that we would be pardoned in September. We were worried after Zenawi’s death that he may not have informed other people about this decision. That’s why the Swedish foreign minister flew down to Zenawi’s funeral. …

Also, they had gained what they had tried to achieve: to scare journalists. If they had kept us any longer the diplomatic price might have been too high.

You went on Ethiopian television (ETV) and apologized for your actions. Was that also theatre?

Schibbye: Yeah. It was the best lie of my life. It was part of the deal. All political prisoners show themselves on TV, say, “Hello, I’m a big idiot,” and then are released.

Persson: They wouldn’t give us the release papers before the interview. One minute after, the papers came. We went straight to the embassy and then to the airport.

Did this experience change your perceptions of journalism?

Schibbye: I dragged my wife through hell for 14 months, but as a journalist I now have tools I didn’t have before. I now understand people I have interviewed because I have experienced similar situations. I now know what it’s like to live in a country and be afraid to think and write; you start to cripple intellectually.

Persson: I don’t need permission from governments around the world to interview people. I interview who I want, when I want. I don’t care if this person is on a terrorist list or not. It’s important that you can hear all sides in the conflict. If you only report one side you don’t get the proper picture.

You can stay and live your lives in one of the world’s safest, richest countries. Why are you willing to sacrifice your lives to tell these stories?

Persson: There are many black spots in the world with no coverage. That’s our job to report

Schibbye and Persson appeared at a press conference following their release.

that. The problem is that Ethiopia may have won this. Now, people are not willing to go into the Ogaden because they fear getting shot in the head or going to jail for 20 years.

Schibbye: We have chosen to be freelancers to choose the stories we want to cover. … It has to be freelancers to do this kind of work. It takes time. We worked on this since 2009 and we are still not finished.

Poynter