The Swedish journalists and journalistic responsibility
(MoFA 10/05/12)- It is hardly a surprise that reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson pardoned and released from an Ethiopian jail at the Ethiopian New Year should immediately come up with allegations of mistreatment. They claimed they were subject to a mock execution and accused the authorities of using anti-terrorism laws to stifle journalism. And equally, as expected, the two also immediately claimed they had been forced to make an apology on Ethiopian television in order to secure their release. Schibbye, naturally, also said he had not meant what he had said. He also launched a criticism of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws, claiming these were aimed at stifling freedom of speech. This merely indicates his ignorance of Ethiopian legislation, not surprising in someone whose knowledge of Ethiopia is so obviously minimal. Indeed, a year in a jail is hardly a realistic or useful basis for gaining a proper understanding of the country’s legal system or its legislation.
It might be added that another highly predictable result of all this to be expected is that new reports will surface any day now from Swedish journalists, and from Human Rights Watch, making further allegations against the behavior of the Somali Regional Security Liyu police or the Ethiopian Defence Forces, or more probably both. The allegations will, as usual, be exclusively made by people living outside the Somali Regional State and indeed outside Ethiopia. Again as usual, the reports will avoid any indication that the political interests of the sources used or their reasons for leaving Ethiopia were queried.
It is all very much as expected. The only surprise would have been if Schibbye and Persson had not immediately tried to detract attention from what by any standards was the remarkably naive and stupid behavior that landed them in an Ethiopian jail in the first place. In fact, Schibbye and Persson were very fortunate in being acquitted of terrorism charges after the court found they had not actually been involved in carrying out any terrorist activity. In fact, luckily for them, as the group they accompanied was clearly on an active mission, they were caught before any such activity took place. They were, however, sentenced in December 2011 by the Third Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court. They received 7 years on the charge of supporting terrorism which they denied, and another 3 years and 3 months for illegal entry into Ethiopia, a charge to which they pleaded guilty. They were pardoned after serving nine months of their sentences.
Certainly, journalists will often take chances in pursuit of a story, but allowing themselves to be used by a terrorist organization, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and of one small fraction of it, suggests an amazing degree of ignorance or gullibility, or both. The claim of Schibbye and Persson, and their supporters, that they had merely wanted to report on the effect of the work of a Swedish oil company, Lundin Petroleum, on the local population and political situation in Ethiopia's Ogaden region and that the only way of entering the area was with the rebels’ help is nonsense. Lundin in fact sold its Ethiopian oil concessions to Africa Oil Corporation over three years ago, and Lundin now has nothing to do with any activities by Africa Oil in the Somali Regional State. Africa Oil itself is quite open about its activities and is in fact on record as noting that it hasn’t seen any of the violence claimed by the ONLF in the areas in which it operates. In this context, it might be noted that Africa Oil has a record of assisting in local development projects, though that is presumably not something in which Schibbye and Persson were interested. There is certainly no difficulty in finding out what Africa Oil is doing in the Somali Regional State, and there would be even less difficulty in finding out what Lundin Oil does in Ethiopia. As with Africa Oil, they only had to ask.
For the record, Lundin Petroleum is also quite open about its activities in Ethiopia. After winning a concession in November 2006, Lundin undertook a number of field studies, carried out by international experts, to assess the economic, environmental and security situation in its concession area. In September 2007, with the help of local Somali NGOs, it held a meeting with 65 clan leaders from the area which confirmed that the local population welcomed Lundin’s exploration activities, and that there was no ONLF activity in the area nor would the local people welcome this. Lundin carried out a one week aerial magnetic survey in January 2008. This involved the setting up of a temporary camp in Cherety, and in connection with this Lundin provided medical services to five villages and the installation of a water-well. This was the only activity Lundin carried out in Ethiopia as it decided to change its global strategy, acquiring new concessions in Norway and Malaysia and selling all its East African assets to Africa Oil. Since the sale, Lundin Petroleum has had no presence or activities in Ethiopia. Lundin holds no shares or debt in Africa Oil Corp.
Martin Schibbye’s comment that "We should never forget that it is an international scandal that we were condemned to 11 years in jail for doing our job" is a typical self-inflated journalistic exaggeration. A journalist’s job should seldom, if ever, include overt illegal activity and certainly not on the scale of accompanying an armed and active terrorist group on a mission. Crossing the border illegally may be a relatively minor affair but accompanying terrorists on a mission can only be described as the height of irresponsibility.
Equally irresponsibly, or merely totally naïve, was the way the two allowed themselves to be used by one faction of the ONLF in what looked remarkably like an attempt to derail the peace talks that were just beginning to get under way, if only slowly, when the pair crossed the border. It was earlier in 2010 that the first feelers were put out that the remaining ONLF elements, under the leadership of ex-Admiral Osman wanted to talk to the government. This followed the successful negotiations between the government and one major ONLF faction in 2011, and an earlier agreement with the United Western Somali Liberation Front headed by Sheikh Ibrahim Mohamed Xuseen in 2010. The later, in particular, has been fitting remarkably well into the developmental activities burgeoning in the Somali Regional State.
Schibbye and Persson’s trip was apparently arranged by an ONLF faction that was doubtful about talking to the government and wanted the ‘struggle’ to continue despite the minimal levels of support currently being given within the region, and the collapse of external funding following the growing evidence of successful developments. This element made it clear they were opposed to talks and were using Schibbye and Persson to try and produce reports in support of their view that the Ethiopian government was not sincere in responding to the possibility of talks. Schibbye and Persson were expected to produce ’evidence’ of atrocities. No doubt they would have managed to do so. Visits by journalists embedded with the ONLF always managed to find this. As with anyone ‘embedded’ with guerrilla forces, or with any military units, official or unofficial, there is a strong tendency to empathize with those they travel with. In any case, Schibbye and Persson were certainly seen as sympathizers otherwise their ONLF mentors would have rejected them. Their prompt retraction of their earlier comments about Ethiopian justice and treatment as soon as they reached Sweden and their attempts to justify their stupidity, underline the point. Someone once coined the phrase guerilla groupies referring to naïve NGO supporters of guerrilla movements. The phrase could equally well apply to journalists out for a story at any price even travelling on a terrorist mission, and unprepared to accept the most basic journalistic commitments to accuracy, balance, truth and responsibility.
The failure of journalists to apply the levels of responsibility expected of their profession is not confined to occasional foreign maverick elements operating in Africa, though it is common enough there. The Leveson enquiry in the UK into the culture, practice and ethics of the press has been hearing about what one advocate of UK press reform has called” a nightmarish pattern of mistreatment of innocent people, of the cynical covering up of wrongdoing, of the industrial-scale quarrying of personal information from confidential databases, of the corruption of public officials and the intimidation of politicians – all of it in pursuit, not of news that might serve the public interest, but of corporate profit.”
The indictment is a damning one, and there are strong hopes that the Leveson enquiry will recommend the setting up of an independent press regulator. Equally, there is little doubt that many journalists, media organizations, and media advocacy organizations will continue to try to resist any such suggestion of changing the current system of self-regulation of the press in the UK despite its failures. The banners of ‘freedom of the press’, ‘public interest’ or similar slogans beloved of journalistic advocacy organizations will no doubt be raised. What is unlikely to get much reference from advocacy groups is the equally important concept of responsibility. Journalism does not entitle anyone to break laws. Journalists, despite their frequently grandiose view of their own place in the world, are always subject to the law of the land as much as anyone else, wherever they may be and wherever they come from. They should not have to be reminded of it.