Swedish journalists explain arrest, imprisonment in Ethiopia

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?

Johan Persson (left) and Martin Schibbye (right)

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 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.

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

Ryan Kohls is based out of Toronto, Canada and operates an interview website at whatiwannaknow.com.

Correction: This story originally said that the Ethiopian courts provided video footage of Schibbye and Persson fighting alongside the ONLF. In fact, the video shows them standing with the ONLF.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Ghost.Intech Cu Bo

    “If you only report one side you don’t get the proper picture.”

    Really? So did you ask Somali-Ogaden ONLF terrorists why they massacred 70 Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers asleep in their beds, before you hired them as guides?” – OMG !!! This is terrible.
    - http://spro.com.vn -

  • http://www.facebook.com/mary.biniam Mary Biniam

    What would happen if two Ethiopian journalists entered Sweden without a visa and went to meet with a group that the government was suspicious of? I think the journalists did not respect the Ethiopian government and the rule of law.

  • http://www.facebook.com/onesomalia Save Somaliweyn

    It’s funny how people like the top 3 commentors can criticize these 2 brave journalists. They did what was not done by NY Times or any other big news/media organizations and agencies.

    1) The OGADEN Region in Eastern Ethiopia have been fighting against the current Ethiopian regime ever since the beginning of its rule, more than 20 YEARS ago… If that is Not dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

    2) The OGADEN Region is rich in Gas and Oil and other resources (Land mostly to farm crops, etc.) – and that is the reason there is a continuing conflict – because ETHIOPIA will NOT let go of all those to gain freedom to a land the size of TEXAS.

    3) The U.S. iis a major ally to ethiopia and it has been benefiting greatly from “Terrorist” campaigns – but calling Journalists and Political Dissenters “TERRORISTS” has gone too far.

    4) The Ogaden president Abdi Omar also known as Abdi “iley” is a incompetent thug who can’t even stage this video and “terrorist” claim correctly. He is a stooge just like all of the other regional leaders of Ethiopia, but he is a good stooge because he does the job the federal government in Addis Ababa does.

    5) ONLF – the Ogaden National Liberation Front are NOT “Terrorists” – nor do they claim to be al-qaeda related or affiliated. They are people who have been fighting for their rights against an oppressive regime and the only option they have is to use arms. Everyday the Ethiopian regime and it’s collobarators, regionally – including but not limited to the Somali Regional State (Somali Region of Ethiopia) alkso known as Ogaden region and other regional and international partners KILL MURDER RAPE and commit genocide against the Ogadeni-Somali people.

    Every dog has his day and Abdi Iley should be brought to International Criminal Courts as well as Meles Zenawi (but his meeting his maker, a better and more fitting Judge for that dictator).

    To the poster, Ras_mitat below… Onlf are Not the real terrorists, but Liyuu Police and Somali region president ABdi Iley and Ethiopia are the real terrorists – who hold the country hostage so they can “progress” and “develop” regions for their own interests NOT for interests of Ogaden people or other Somali & Ethiopian people.

    6. GOD WILLINGLY OGADEN Region will either have Independence or be back to their brothers and sisters in SOMALIA.

  • http://www.facebook.com/onesomalia Save Somaliweyn

    It’s funny how people like the top 3 commentors can criticize these 2 brave journalists. They did what was not done by NY Times or any other big news/media organizations and agencies.

    1) The OGADEN Region in Eastern Ethiopia have been fighting against the current Ethiopian regime ever since the beginning of its rule, more than 20 YEARS ago… If that is Not dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

    2) The OGADEN Region is rich in Gas and Oil and other resources (Land mostly to farm crops, etc.) – and that is the reason there is a continuing conflict – because ETHIOPIA will NOT let go of all those to gain freedom to a land the size of TEXAS.

    3) The U.S. iis a major ally to ethiopia and it has been benefiting greatly from “Terrorist” campaigns – but calling Journalists and Political Dissenters “TERRORISTS” has gone too far.

    4) The Ogaden president Abdi Omar also known as Abdi “iley” is a incompetent thug who can’t even stage this video and “terrorist” claim correctly. He is a stooge just like all of the other regional leaders of Ethiopia, but he is a good stooge because he does the job the federal government in Addis Ababa does.

    5) ONLF – the Ogaden National Liberation Front are NOT “Terrorists” – nor do they claim to be al-qaeda related or affiliated. They are people who have been fighting for their rights against an oppressive regime and the only option they have is to use arms. Everyday the Ethiopian regime and it’s collobarators, regionally – including but not limited to the Somali Regional State (Somali Region of Ethiopia) alkso known as Ogaden region and other regional and international partners KILL MURDER RAPE and commit genocide against the Ogadeni-Somali people.

    Every dog has his day and Abdi Iley should be brought to International Criminal Courts as well as Meles Zenawi (but his meeting his maker, a better and more fitting Judge for that dictator).

    To the poster, Ras_mitat below… Onlf are Not the real terrorists, but Liyuu Police and Somali region president ABdi Iley and Ethiopia are the real terrorists – who hold the country hostage so they can “progress” and “develop” regions for their own interests NOT for interests of Ogaden people or other Somali & Ethiopian people.

    6. GOD WILLINGLY OGADEN Region will either have Independence or be back to their brothers and sisters in SOMALIA.

  • Adv Trek

    Douchebags…”independent journalist” nowadays is anyone with an online blog for $$$.

    See them next caught “hiking” on Syria-Turkey border…And another book deal.

  • http://twitter.com/truth_g Alem G.

    Schibbye and Persson, we freedom and democracy loving Ethiopians salutes you for your bravery! If it wasn’t for your brave work, stories like the one you attempted to cover would not have been heard. Schibbye said, “We worked on this since 2009 and we are still not finished.” we know that you’re too brave to give up that easy!…. someday, we wish we’ll elect a DEMOCRATIC gov’t and apologize for misdeeds commited against your profession. PLEASE FIGHT FOR FELLOW ETHIOPIAN JOURNALIST – WHO’RE SUFFERING FROM THE SAME INJUSTICE YOU’VE EXPERIENCED. AND, REMEMBER THAT ETHIOPIA’S REGIME IS #1 IN JAILING THE MOST NUMBER OF JOURNALISTS IN AFRICA!

  • Anonymous

    The most important observation made about Zenawis Ethiopia.
    “I now know what it’s like to live in a country and be afraid to think and write; you start to cripple intellectually.”

  • Bete Birhanu

    There is no official region called the Ogaden nor does it have a president. This clearly shows the extent of carelessness of the two jounalists even in calling the correct region. It is called the Somali Region of Ethiopia. Anyway, these amateurs do not deserve public attention since that is the sole aim for their venture. The world should distinguish between real journalists and imposters. These two lack the professional capabilities and are impotent to criticize any government. And most of all they lied to and betrayed the Ethiopian public when they sought pardon and later after their release proclaimed that they were forced to do that.

  • Anonymous

    “If you only report one side you don’t get the proper picture.”

    Really? So did you ask Somali-Ogaden ONLF terrorists why they massacred 70 Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers asleep in their beds, before you hired them as guides?

    BBC NEWS: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6588055.stm

    REUTERS NEWS: http://af.reuters.com/article/ethiopiaNews/idAFLDE74D0CU20110514