Author Archives: Martin Schibbye

Christmas in Kality

Satellite photo over Kality prison. In one of the roofs in the upper right corner of the picture you will see a white text. That was our zone, zone 6. In this hangar of corrugated steel we lived for more than a year. In the security zone, zone 1, the male Ethiopian journalists are held. In the women’s zone along the lower-right corner of the picture the female journalist Reeyot Alemu will be found.

It has started now. Collections among the prisoners to pay for this year’s Ethiopian Christmas known as Ganna which is celebrated on January 7th. One birr here. 10 birr there. Enthusiastic Prison Committee members who arrange open scenes, betting rackets and auctions to pull together the funds to pay for soft drinks, popcorn and bread head up the fundraising.

Being locked up you do not really celebrate a new year but rather that a year has passed and that another 365 days can be added to your past. The first question is always: how long have you been here? Not: When will you be released?

Throughout the week I have been thinking that I should write about Christmas in Kality. That I should write about the rays of hope during incarceration in order to remember all the people there and to give you who read the blog a small Christmas gift.

I had in mind to write about how, in the morning, Johan walked around with a red jar of gingerbread cookies. To write about how our neighbours hungrily took the cookies with both hands: “Prison Rules!” To say something about how Rihanna’s song ”Man Down” echoed from the zone’s loudspeakers during count-in. To tell about the communal singing of the chorus while waiting in line in the mornings: “I just shot a man down. I am a criminal, criminal, criminal, judge please give me minimum, minimum, minimum.”

To write about the service held a few hours later in the small steel shed that some prisoners had turned into a church. A room without an altar, Saints or candles, but with a sign written by hand on the wall which said: “the trials here are nothing compared to the one in the last day.”

I was going to tell you about wooden pews packed with criminals. About “oil man”, “Aspirinman”, “the mad Arab”, “F”, “S”, “Bantu”, “K”, “G”, “Burundi”, “Jack-ass”, “Trafficker”, “Liberia”, “Fool”, “Cameroon”, “J”, “Somalia” and “Nigeria”. Killer paedophiles, bank robbers, con artists and pickpockets. The guilty and the innocent. Christians and Muslims. From Cairo to Cape Town. On each seat a short story. On each bench a novel. Good people. Some with bullets left in their bodies. The cream of African youth.

I was going to tell you about the sermon from a self-taught priest that started with the words:

– I have sinned more than anyone else here. If you knew what I have done, you would all rise and walk away.

About the silence that followed.

I was going to recount the story of the priest’s life that made the congregation’s eyes wet with tears.

And tell you about those who actually stood up and walked away.

I was going to write about his message to us in the pews that morning. That the most important thing was to maintain our dignity as human beings, that we should start cooking for our enemies in prison, invite them to lunch and to wash their clothes. But above all, I had in mind to write about his philosophy in life: to refuse to accept that we were locked up and that we would die here: jamais!

– You should be glad that you got this chance. Had you not ended up in Kality, you would have been dead. Believe me. It is quite a lethal world out there.

I was going to tell you about the former child soldiers from the Rwandan genocide, who nodded in agreement.

But I won’t, now.

I will keep the story of Christmas in Kality for the coming book.

I just want, with the help of a few lines, to wish all blog- and future book readers a Merry Christmas in freedom.

If there will be a happy new year depends on what we decide to make of it.

Because there are still flies in the ointment.

2012 was a terrible year for the freedom of the press in the world with 141 journalists killed, a thousand arrested and more than 2,000 physically attacked and threatened members of the free media. In the light of the fact that the freedom of the press is vital for democracy and thus the development of society, these figures are nothing short of alarming.

On New Year’s Eve of 2012, 232 journalists celebrated the new year in prisons around the world. This is the highest figure ever, according to a report by the CPJ. Among them journalist and father of three, Dawit Isaak, who has been held for more than 4 000 days in an Eritrean prison, will be found.

Several of the imprisoned journalists will celebrate New Year’s Eve in Addis Abbeba’s kality prison. We have been accused of the same things, we have been to the same prison and had the same sentences – but that is where the parallel ends: Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu are still there.

Me and Johan are free.

All these young Ethiopian journalists faced a choice. They are intelligent and well educated, they could have chosen an easy life, they could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth, to their country, for their fellow human beings and to Ethiopia made them into journalists.

They stayed and continued to write.

That decision brought them to Kality.

For their courage, working methods and articles they have been forced to pay with their freedom.

With six detained journalists left in Kality, Ethiopia today is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to imprisoning members of the press. Repression of the media has also made the country a world leader when it comes to running journalists out of the country.

We must not forget that the bottom line of what has made journalism such a dangerous job in Ethiopia is not the callous ways of the regime, but the indifference of the rest of the world.

In addition to the lack of freedom, Reeyot Alemu has had a lot of medical problems in prison. She used to be plagued by gastric catarrh and sinusitis. She has also had heavy pains in her left breast after her arrest. Woubshet Taye, accused of having taken a picture of a demonstration, was beaten until he fell ill before he was arrested and taken to Kality prison. Now he is feeling better but still suffers by not having any access to books, newspapers or the radio.

Not being able to write or read is double punishment.

I hope that media outlets continue to follow their cases just as they followed ours. As a prisoner of conscience the thing you fear most is to be forgotten and the support from the outside is what keeps you going. Columns, articles and letters of support are more important than food and medicine. And international recognition in the news does provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching.

On January 8, 2013, the next trial for Reejot Alemo is set. Follow the hashtag #ReeyotAlemu that day. Almost always there will be someone courageous that reports live on site during the trial with a presence and straight forwardness that will give you goose bumps. Twitter – at its finest moments — in service of democracy and the freedom of the press.

The process against Eskinder Nega is also under way. His case one can easily follow via twitter on #EskinderNega or Voice of America.

We must also never forget the story we failed to make and at the same time continue to follow developments in the underreported Ogaden region.

In the year that passed it became evident that the protection of and respect for journalism is inadequate internationally. Therein lays the challenge. What happened to me and Johan changed our lives – the question we all must ask ourselves in the coming year is how all of us together can change the conditions for journalism and for those who are still imprisoned.

Clearly it feels liberating to celebrate New Year’s Eve and Christmas in freedom.

When you look back and think of those who are left behind in the chaos, left on the concrete floor, between walls of corrugated steel celebrating the New Year in captivity, I feel sick to the stomach.

But then I remember their smiles and their strength and think that it’s not us that are fighting for their freedom, but rather the imprisoned journalists, who are fighting for ours.

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Ethiopian journalist on hunger strike


This week I was reached by the news that the jailed journalist Reeyot Alemu has kicked off a hungerstrike in Kality protesting the prison’s decision to deny her visits from friends and relatives. Instead of a release party for the book “438 days” yesterday we took part in a seminar about our Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and other colleagues that are still in Kality, together with Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

It is just not the right time for champagne, when one of our colleagues is on hunger strike.

The decision by Reeyot Alemu brings back memories from my encounters with her in Maekalawi and Kality. Yesterday during the seminar we discussed her situation and I can only agree with what Mesfin Negash said at the event: “To say that she is a brave and courageous colleague would be an understatement”.

The first time me and the photographer Johan Persson met the journalist Reeyot Alemu she was handcuffed on a prison bus from the Magistrate’s Court. “What do you do?” I asked. “I am a journalist, we are not alone, we are many political prisoners here accused for terrorism”, she replied and pointed out that the cells to our left, right and opposite to us where full of journalist, teachers and politicians: “If you are released, tell the world I am not a terrorist but a journalist working for the truth.”

Amnesty International later described these months as “the most far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression seen in many years in Ethiopia.”

Despite being separated from each other in different cells she helped us through the long days of confinement and uncertainty. Even locked up in a dark room without shoelaces, deprived of your freedom of expression as well as your physical freedom, together with the other inmates we keep the most valuable thing that nobody can take from us: the right to determine who you are. Every morning we woke up and said to each other: “We are journalists, not terrorists … this is just another day at the office”.

And whenever I saw her pass our cell I shouted.

“The world is watching!”

She was well aware of the risk she was taking. Her real crime was courage.

“I was preparing articles that oppose injustice. When I did it, I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price.”

On June 21, more than two years ago. Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was arrested and taken to Makalawi for shining a rare light on her country’s government. What I remember most from Makalawi is the sounds.

The first screams were always the worst.

The frightened sound before the first stroke was loader and more chilling than the crying and sobbing that followed. The fear of pain was worse than the actual pain among the inmates at Makalawi, the Ethiopian central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Towards the end the abused prisoner was always silent.

Six disease-ridden cells around a small yard with inmates coughing blood, overridden with lice, fleas and rats called ”Sheraton” by the inmates because even if it was bad, the small dark cells where humans are kept like animals standing chained in the dark until they confess their made up crimes and sign a piece of paper, were worse.

The inmates named these cells “Hilton”.

Humour is the last line of defence.

But the worst thing with Makalawi during this rainy summer month of July 2011 was not the methods used there or the standard of solitary confinement – but rather who the Ethiopian Government hade chosen to put there.

Although Alemu has won the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award and UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, the Ethiopian government still insists that she is a terrorist. Alemu was offered clemency if she agreed to testify against journalist colleagues.

She refused and was sent to solitary confinement for 13 days as punishment for her failure to cooperate.

The second time I saw Reeyot Alemu was on that same bus on our way to the Federal High Court in September 2011. It was a rainy afternoon. The road was muddy. The city grey. The cranes had frozen in mid- movement and were leaning against unfinished houses with exposed steel girders. On the horizon, the new Africa Hall – a 200 million dollar gift from China – towering toward the sky. A symbol for Addis Abeba as the capital of Africa.

The plan seems to be working.

Most stories from fellow correspondents from here are not about imprisoned colleagues or human rights abuse. They are about growth: Double digit growth.

The local journalists who could have given another picture sit behind me on the bus.

During the bus ride to the court it is as if the country’s proud history holds its breath. The fear for an Arabic spring is so strong that the rulers rather act than being acted upon. For the first time since we where shoot and mock-executed by the Ethiopian military in the desert I am scared. Not for Ethiopia or the prosecution – but for the world we live in and the time we call ours.

What if nobody cares?

Then I see Reejot coming out of the Federal High Court building carrying copies of her articles in her fragile arms.

Her life’s work.

Articles written and published by her in her legitimate profession as a journalist, is suddenly evidence in support of terrorist allegations.

Then it’s our turn.

We are led into the courtroom and presented to a judge sitting under three portraits of Meles Zenawi and a picture of the Millennium dam project. We are being accused of moral support of terrorism for covering both sides of a conflict. The charges brought out this against us and our colleagues this day basically criminalized journalism in Ethiopia.

“ You will be a famous man I tell the judge, a lot of journalists will come to Addis to cover our trial, you just created a media circus”.

The judge leans back behind his big desk and smiles confidently.

“Let them come!”

We have been accused of the same things as Reeyot. We have been to the same courts and had the same sentences – but that is where the parallel ends: Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu, among others, are still there.

Me and Johan are free.

All these young Ethiopian journalists faced a choice. They are intelligent and well educated, they could have chosen an easy life, they could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth, for their country, for their fellow human beings and to Ethiopia made them into journalists.

They stayed and continued to write.

That decision brought them to Kality.

For their courage, working methods and articles they have been forced to pay with their freedom. With all the detained journalists left in Kality, Ethiopia today is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to imprisoning members of the press. Repression of the media has also made the country a world leader when it comes to running journalists out of the country.

For a nation, which had courageously liberated itself from the yoke of terrifying dictatorship, this is a sad legacy.

The last time I saw Alemu was in August 2012, not long before Johan Persson and me were released. We passed each other outside the prison administration offices, being escorted to and from our zone. She had recently undergone surgery at a nearby hospital to remove a tumour from her breast, after which she was returned to jail with no time to recover.

She smiled and looked confident.

Reeyot Alemu has now been imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than two years, branded as a terrorist. She is one of many journalists who have been arrested, interrogated and threatened in her country. What makes Alemu exceptional are her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling.

Since our release I have often been asked if the attention helps the imprisoned or not.

My answer is that it is far more important than food and water.

When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, the greatest fear is to be forgotten. The support from the outside is what keeps you going and international coverage does provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching.

But we should also be aware of that the arrest of me and Johan Persson made evident the damage to its reputation the Ethiopian government was willing to accept in its effort to silence independent reporters.

As long as Ethiopia can jail journalists and get away with it, it is a cheap and easy way of censorship. To jail a journalist should be regarded as a crime against humanity. It should be like frying a panda bear.

But in this regard I don’t put my hopes to international pressure. For now the jailed journalists are nothing more than “an irritant” in the diplomatic world.

It’s business as usual.

I put my hope in the young generation which I shared the concrete floor with in Kality. Despite the daily propaganda on the Ethiopian state television, ETV, very few in Kality regards the jailed journalists as terrorists.

Some month ago thousands of young men and women marched in the streets of Addis Ababa demanding the release of political prisoners, religious freedom, respect for human rights and the Constitution in a peaceful demonstration.

I have an unquestioning faith in Ethiopia’s young people.

And when I look back and think of Reeyot Alemu and the colleagues who are left behind in the chaos, left on the concrete floor, between walls of corrugated steel I feel sick to the stomach.

But then I remember her smile and strength and think that it’s not us that are fighting for her freedom, but rather Reeyot Alemu with her hungerstrike, that is fighting for ours.

Martin Schibbye,

Swedish journalist who together with the photographer Johan Persson was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia country illegally and pardoned after 14 months. Yesterday our book about the 438 days as prisoners in Ethiopia was released in Swedish.

Update:

“It is a good news that #ReeyotAlemu, #Emawayish and #Fetiya lifted up their hunger strike today. Visitors are not still allowed to Reeyot other than parents and Fetiya other than her family members.”

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Some advise about freedom


Dear Peter!
Congratulations. The good news just reached me. I am so happy for you and hope you will be together with your family soon. You probably saw the sunset tonight and tomorrow you will see the sun rise.

400 days ago when the news of your arrest reached me something within me broke. Then I saw the pictures of you all locked up as animals in cages. Seven years. “Terrorism”. Ten years. “Evidence”. Words that lost their meaning.

I felt sick to the stomach to see it happening again.

I spent fourteen months, 438 days, inside the Kality prison in Addis Ababa. Together with photographer Johan Persson, I was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Our reportage about oil was transformed into a story about ink.

We where both were pardoned after 14 months of confinement.

During these 400 days, whenever I have read your letters from prison I felt that you where handling the situation in the best way possible. Doing the best of the tragedy. Turning it into something else. Using humour, the last line of defence, to cope with captivity.

I saw the signs in all your letters that they would newer break you. Because you seemed to be in peace with yourself. You knew that even though you where chained, robbed of your physical freedom, the freedom to talk or to be silent, the freedom to drink or eat, and even to shit.

You knew, as do all prisoners of conscience, that you had it in you to keep the most valuable, the freedom that nobody can take from you: the freedom to determine who you are.

A journalist.

The reason I write this letter now is to share my experience on freedom.

Take it for what it is. I think we are all unique and every situation is different but maybe there is something in my experiences from freedom that you might find useful.

Yesterday the word “freedom” might have sounded extraterrestrial, the human body is just all to good at adapting to bizarre situations, but believe me: now you are free.

When me and Johan where released we where advised to go to a resort in a warm country and meet shrinks. Then return to Sweden.

But we felt that that was wrong. I am and was a journalist so I wanted to share my story. Do my job. Keep my promise to the other inmates and tell the world what I had seen. The result was a compromise: we took the first flight out of Ethiopia and ended up in Istanbul where we stayed two nights before flying to Stockholm.

We booked tickets all the way to Stockholm to shake of colleagues “asking” Turkish Airlines officials for our flight plan (once we where out it was fierce competition again to get the first interview), but we got of in transit and made sure the hotel reservation was made as “the national Swedish female volleyball team”.

There in Istanbul we had a freelance colleague who waited with a new computer, iphone, and clothes, so that we could rest for two days before flying home to Stockholm and hold a press conference.

We got a film camera immediately at our release but we newer used it. It had been great pictures but the mind was on surviving not documenting. We made sure though that the first photo of us had Johans byline.

After the press conference we took interview after interview until Johan, broke down crying on the floor in the toilet. Then he got up and we took more interviews until almost midnight. We wanted to do this. Everybody tried to tell us to stop and go home. In hindsight I think it was right to give colleagues our story, colleagues who had been there for us during 438 days, reporting, travelling to Addis Abbeba, keeping the story alive.

For us it was like a live debriefing.

But on the second day we should have pulled down the curtain and spend time with our family, instead we continued giving interviews for weeks until I finally went away for a vacation with my wife. Someone should have said stop earlier. I am sure your heroic family, editors and close colleagues will have your back covered.

It might be good to have one of those press spokespersons /gatekeepers that you normally live to hate.

Small practical things will also be a real hassle. Make sure someone helps you with sim-cards, creditcards, new ID:s (if you don’t get that back). For me to walk in stairs, using keys, everything was a big thing. Don’t underestimate these small things, those are the ones that will you go nuts trying to figure out. Passwords for twitter etc etc.

Ask for help with practicalities. Let people take care of this for you. Don’t try to be to strong.

Mentally. The first week I was high on adrenaline. Nothing was of any problem. But after a month I went for vacation and that’s when the real challenge began.

I spend those weeks on the beach reading about Guantanamo, and other prison novels, stressed with that I had to and wanted to write a book.

I’d say overall the first year in freedom was worse than the 14 months in jail.

I hade been “good” at being in a prison. I made it. The journalist Martin was feeling great.

But all those qualities where not really useful in the ordinary world. Being on your watch, living in a world where nothing is happening but everything can happen.

All that stress was not to my advantage, to say the least, at home at the breakfast table. Plates was thrown to the ground. Things said that I regret.

I was more jailed in freedom, than what I had been in prison.

I actually missed prison some days. Life was simple there. The days you had had your coffee, done your workout, managed to get hold of a book, got a glimpse of the blue thing people on the outside called sky.

I was newer that happy in freedom.

The challenge was to go from being the journalist-Martin to being Martin-Martin. The person. This took time.

I also hade the survivors guilt to deal with. Why me? When so many are still left for the same “crime”. For you, with Baher and Mohamed remaining in jail the only comfort is that you now really can fight for their freedom.

What really helped me, more than any meetings with psychiatrists (those helped in giving strategies for reducing stress) was to write a book and exercise. There is such a huge overload of stress in the body that it needs to be dealt with. I was newer any good at yoga, and tired of doing 600 push-ups a day, so instead I started running. Haven’t stopped yet. To run in one direction without having to hit a wall was such an amazing feeling.

Try to keep the good routines from prison, reading at night instead of looking through your twitter feed, exercising in the morning, enjoying that coffee.

Mentally, during the book process, I went up every morning and went back to the desert and to the prison. It was awful. But the day the book was released I was happier than when I was free from prison.

I had written my self free. Word by word. Day by day.

Writing was almost physical, like puking.

At least that worked for me. After the book was out I could say that “now is now and then is then”. I also felt that I had kept my promise to the colleagues, telling the world what I had seen. I had done my job, done journalism out of the experience.

Today two years after the release I am not ever as happy as I could be in prison, but I am ok.

I have cried two times in two years.

I cant still handle stress the way I used to. That’s the downside, the good part is that I am a better journalist. I have gone from being just an observer to also for a while been a participant. Even compared to others as tourist in a prison reality. That perspective, experience, of suffering, rightlessness, I would not want to be without.

From my experience the ones suffering, taking the real beating, are parents, relatives, brothers and sister on the outside.

They have been in a mental prison and I even though they have been fighting like lions for your release it has been a painful fight. There has always been one more thing they could do. One more phone call. One more letter.

Spend time with them. Hug them.

But the bright side of their ordeal is that is really shows the strength in the family and the extended family. My family and my wifes family knows each other now in a way that had not been possible without this event. It brings out the best of friends.

It gives you faith in humanity.

And even though you will now read the collected newspapers you will newer really grasp the campaign that has been there for you. I´d say it has been so powerful that it has kept people out of jail.

Its just so hopeful to see this first pay off. One out. Two to go.

There is a lot more to say. But I will stop here.

One last advice would be to do things you like to do after being released. That’s the most important thing. If you feel like going to a yoga place in Kathmandu and live on salad do that, if you feel like surfing do that, or go to Kobane and report if that’s what you feel.

We have been missing your face on the TV-screen.

There will be so many people telling you what is the right thing to do. Only you know.

I am looking forward listening to your interviews. But take your time. Don´t rush anything. You are free now. You have all the time in the world.

And I know you will take height and fight for the ones left. Me and Johan started The Kality Foundation. It was also a way to keep fighting for the ones left.

We all know that’s what on stake here for journalism ahead is so much more than just your or my freedom.

What we see is a trend, an open hunting season on journalists. And in nations where journalists are jailed, no one is free.

Today back in the field I am more afraid of rubber paragraphs and terrorist-legislation than bombs and bullets. If this development continues it’s the end of journalism as we know it.

We certainly live in interesting times. And we need you and the collegaues back to sort it all out.

You have to start beating the drum as soon as you feel ok.

I hope that in the very near future we will meet in person, not only on the page. If you are passing by Stockholm I will buy you a beer. If you have a free spot for an interview I will fly to Australia.

Until then stay strong. For your colleagues, tomorrow morning is another day at their prison office. They will have to take a teaspoon of cement and get to work.

The same goes for you. The fight for justice goes on!

I saw on flighradar24 that your flight was on its way to Cyprus.

Ayanapa?

Odd choice, but have fun :)

/

Martin Schibbye, Swedish freelance journalist

martin@martinschibbye.se

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Today Al Jazeera staff has spend 400 days in prison

Today marks 400 days since ‪#‎Freeajstaff‬ got arrested. On todays ‪#‎Aljazeera‬ I comment their and my case.

In the interview I say that Egypt has very likely sneaked a look at Ethiopia, and has been impressed and inspired. Imprisoning journalists is a cheap form of censorship without any consequences. Diplomats and politicians from the West are expressing a cautious “concern” for developments in both Ethiopia and Egypt, but at the same time they are concerned about maintaining their strategic links with these geo-politically important countries.

Arresting journalists is also effective in terms of sending a message of fear on to the ones still free. Few or no journalists write about the political opposition in Ethiopia or write about the Ogaden region. Instead, uncritical reporting on foreign investment, double digit growth, or “the new Africa” have become increasingly common.

The mass detention of journalists in Egypt is unique in its sheer scale, but the alarms have been sounding for a while now. What was referred to ten years ago as a “wolf at the door” argument, namely that terror laws could be used against journalists, has now become a brutal reality in an increasing number of countries. In the annual statistics compiled by press freedom organisations, each set of figures is always compared with the year before. But if one zooms out, an interesting pattern emerges: the really significant increase in numbers of imprisoned journalists takes place after 11 September, 2001.

The rubber-band legislation created to get at terrorists is being abused in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and China to silence, persecute and incarcerate inconvenient voices.

The USA is also plummeting like a stone in last year’s press freedom rankings, as a result of its increasingly aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers. The anti-terror laws which were used in the conviction of myself and Johan Persson, were copied word for word by Ethiopia from the British legal system, and have been enforced since 2009 to imprison journalists.

While the names of the journalists were Mohammed or Abdi, the phenomenon continued to pass under the radar of media coverage. But when the impact is felt by a Johan, a Martin and now also a Peter from Australia, the consequences of the hunt for terrorists are suddenly evident in relation to the people we know and the news channels we watch.

Therefore, on a day like today, let us not forget that the 14 months Johan and I spent in Kality Prison did not have any political or diplomatic repercussions for Ethiopia. The mock executions, the fabricated evidence, the abuse of terror legislation – all was allowed to pass. Sweden and Ethiopia turned a fresh leaf and moved on. Strengthened in their bilateral relations.

Colleagues of ours who are still in Kality Prison, such as Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year term for protesting against the anti-terror laws, and Reeyot Alemu, sentenced to 5 years in prison for writing articles critical of the regime, are today no more than “irritant”, a term often used in diplomatic circles.

So, on day 400, I feel there is so much on stake her apart from the freedom of the Al-Jazeera staff. In the future, will foreign correspondents dare interview terror-stamped groups such as the Afghani Taliban, the Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Shabaab in Somalia?

We need these voices, so that our global understanding of issues is not cut in half.

If one more country gets away with prosecuting journalists, no one will be safe any longer. In countries where journalists are jailed no one is free.

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Journalism is now a crime

Some thoughts on the verdict against Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt.

Suddenly all the weeks of waiting was over.

This morning the award-winning Australian Peter Greste, his Egyptian-Canadian editor Mohamed Fahmy and the producer, Baher Mohamed, where pulled out of their cold and dirty cells in Egypt’s Tora Prison. They had probably washed themselves as well as they could, trimmed their beards and squeezed their bodies into ill-fitting clothes. At the back of their minds, memorised words and sentences.

Right alongside them but out of reach, the families of the imprisoned men, as well as hoards of foreign diplomats, embassy staff and a sizeable pack of journalists, from all over the world was on tenterhooks.

Breathe. Breathe. Was all I could think of while the tweets #FreeAJstaff rushed over the screen at a pace of 1 000 tweets an hour.

I steeled myself but everything around me was drained of colour.

The courtroom was absolutely silent.

When I closed my eyes I could see everything playing itself out before me as if it was yesterday: the raised seat of the judges, the spectators’ benches, the wilting national flags and the starched black capes of the barristers. I remembered the dirty tiled floor and the red velvet curtains, reminding one more of a visit to the theatre than a law court.
The camera flashguns where smattering.

Egyptian modern history was holding its breath.

The diplomatic pressure that had been built up during the trial, together with the complete lack of any shred of evidence, had made many observers think that we’ll, they just have to release them.

Don’t they?

Then the seven years sentence was declared.

How did we end up here – again?

Only three years ago, al-Jazeera cabled out historical images of celebration from Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the Arab Spring. From their frontline positions, the television channel was able to cover the waves of demonstrations, the ebb and flow of revolution. Thanks to Al-Jazeera, a whole generation of youth in North Africa and the Middle East could see that political change was a real possibility. The channel continued reporting on the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and the short presidency of Mohamed Morsi until the Army’s assumption of power in July 2013.

That was when the journey ended.

Egypt once again became a military dictatorship. In the autumn, there were several massacres of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands more have been arrested. More or less the entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood – which has been designated a terrorist organisation – is imprisoned, and several of its leaders are facing death penalties.

Suddenly the news stories went into reverse.

The rolling back of recent victories has been fast-moving, including the most delicate achievement of all: press freedom.

Today, Egypt is one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and the third deadliest country to work in after Syria and Iraq. The mass detention of journalists in Egypt is unique in its sheer scale, but the alarms have been sounding for a while now.

What was referred to ten years ago as a “wolf at the door” argument, namely that terror laws could be used against journalists, has now become a brutal reality in an increasing number of countries. In the annual statistics compiled by press freedom organisations, each set of figures is always compared with the year before.

But if one zooms out, an interesting pattern emerges: the really significant increase in numbers of imprisoned journalists takes place after 11 September, 2001.

The rubber-band legislation created to get at terrorists is being abused in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and China to silence, persecute and incarcerate inconvenient voices.

The USA is also plummeting like a stone in this year’s press freedom rankings, as a result of its increasingly aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers. The anti-terror laws which were used in the conviction of myself and Johan Persson, were copied word for word by Ethiopia from the British legal system, and have been enforced since 2009 to imprison journalists.

While the names of the journalists were Mohammed or Abdi, the phenomenon continued to pass under the radar of media coverage. But when the impact is felt by a Johan, a Martin and now also a Peter from Australia, the consequences of the hunt for terrorists are suddenly evident in relation to the people we know and the news channels we watch.

Therefore, on a day like today in the courtroom, let us not forget that the 14 months Johan and I spent in Kality Prison did not have any political or diplomatic repercussions for Ethiopia.

The mock executions, the fabricated evidence, the abuse of terror legislation – all was allowed to pass. Sweden and Ethiopia turned a fresh leaf and moved on. Strengthened in their bilateral relations. Colleagues of ours who are still in Kality Prison, such as Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year term for protesting against the anti-terror laws, and Reeyot Alemu, sentenced to 5 years in prison for writing articles critical of the regime, are today no more than “an irritant”, in the diplomatic circles.

Egypt has very likely sneaked a look at Ethiopia, and has been impressed and inspired.

Imprisoning journalists is a cheap form of censorship without any consequences.

Diplomats and politicians from the West are expressing a cautious “concern” for developments in both Ethiopia and Egypt, but at the same time they are concerned about maintaining their strategic links with these geo-politically important countries.

Its almost ironic that just days before the verdict the US had made available most of the $575m (£328m) in military aid frozen by Congress after the coup against Morsi.

Two years I ago I stood accused of terrorism in a law court, and I pressed the microphone against my chest to stop myself from trembling. There is only one thing worse than being hanged, and that is being hanged without first having the chance to speak and be heard.

For two hours I spoke about how we journalists take risks because we believe in journalism as a positive force, something that can give a voice to people, point a spotlight on conflict and promote peace.

I gave a lot of thought to who would be the next person we would be prohibited from interviewing, unless this development could be stopped.

Today I know the answer.

The verdict sends a chilling message and a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for doing their job.

In the future, will foreign correspondents dare interview terror-stamped groups such as the Afghani Taliban, the Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Shabaab in Somalia?

We need these voices, so that our global understanding of issues is not cut in half.

If Egypt now gets away with jailing journalists, no one will be safe any longer.

Today’s sentence in Egypt against these journalists are an attack on us all.

But despite this difficult situation there is light.

The fight for their release has turned global. Colleagues and readers in Egypt and around the world have since their arrest been taking enormous risks writing, tweeting and speaking truth to power – demanding the jailed to be released.

It is hopeful.

It shows that they can jail journalists but they can never succeed in jailing journalism.

As Al-Jazeera says in a statement today “The authorities in Egypt now need to take responsibility for their actions, and be held to account by the global community”.

At the end of the day reality consists of Realpolitik, journalism and diplomacy, not Egyptian playschool in the kangaroo courtroom.

They´ll get out.

Seven.

It´s just a number.

/ Martin Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who together with the photographer Johan Persson was sentenced as terrorists to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Both were pardoned after 14 months of confinement. Schibbye and Persson has recently published a book about their 438 days as prisoners.

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