Taking risks in pursuit of the truth

The jailing of two Swedish journalists in Ethiopia is a powerful reminder of the need for investigative reporting.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

On 27 December, an Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists, photographer Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye, to 11 years in prison for supporting terrorism and for unlawfully entering the country. The pair had been held for six months since being captured by Ethiopian troops. Their sentencing is a blow not only to the two journalists and their families, but to the risky business of investigative reporting, an important aspect of journalism that is already being undermined by budget cuts, risk aversion and the relentless push towards ever-quicker content-generation.

The Swedish journalists have admitted to entering Ethiopia illegally, but deny involvement in terrorism. On Tuesday, they issued a statement saying they will seek pardon rather than appeal the sentencing.

They say their intention was to report on the activities of Africa Oil, a company with ties to the Swedish oil explorer Lundin Petroleum, in the remote Ogaden region near Ethiopia’s border with Somalia. They were investigating rumours by refugees from the region that Ethiopian troops had committed assaults on the civilian population and had burned down villages in order to pave the way for oil companies.

Difficulties in getting into Ogaden have meant that there has been very little reporting from the region (1). In order to gain access to the heavily restricted area, Persson and Schibbye linked up with rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist group that has been banned by the Ethiopian government and is viewed as a terrorist organisation.

It is not hard to see why investigative reporters would like to take on the story of the Ogaden province. It’s got everything: a regional African conflict, refugees, rumours about state repression, a banned rebel group, big oil companies, the involvement of top politicians. It’s a juicy story, a public-interest story; it would conceivably make for a great Hollywood flick.

The Ethiopian court, however, ruled that it was ‘very unlikely’ that the two journalists had entered Ethiopia illegally only for newsgathering purposes. ‘Guilty as charged, period, unanimous vote’, the judge concluded.

Johan Persson (left) and Martin Schibbye (right)

Ogaden is evidently a fraught region. As Reuters reports, most of Ethiopia’s oil and gas exploration activities have centred on this desert province and the ONLF rebels have a history of attacking foreign firms. For instance, in April 2007, the ONLF attacked an oil field run by Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner and China’s second largest oil and gas producer. Nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopians were killed and the Chinese temporarily pulled out of the region. Was this a victory or a loss for the local population? After all, before Chinese engineers went to Ogaden, the entire region had just over 30 kilometres (20 miles) of tarmac road and, when the Chinese re-entered, they did so with promises of extended development assistance.

Beyond the local conflict and big business interests, there’s another angle to the story, too, which was particularly relevant for the Swedish journalists. Sweden’s current minister of foreign affairs, Carl Bildt, was a Lundin Petroleum board member between 2000 and 2006. He was responsible for the company’s ethical guidelines, including in Ethiopia. Since Persson’s and Schibbye’s arrest, Bildt has been criticised for not putting enough pressure on the Ethiopian government to release them. He has denied that the case involves a conflict of interest for him.

In other words, this is a complex, messy story and Persson and Schibbye set out to separate rumours from facts, to investigate on the ground.

Of course, we still don’t know which elements of the story are true and which are false. Has the Ethiopian government really sanctioned massacres? Have oil companies engaged in unethical business practices in the region? If so, who knew about it? Are all locals against foreign firms operating in the Ogaden region or do some believe the involvement of overseas companies could be beneficial? Are some of the involved parties simply conspiracy-mongering? Have there been cover-ups, corruption or underhand dealings? How does the ONLF justify its own actions in the region?

That is precisely why Persson and Schibbye went over there: to find the truth and to tell it to the public. That’s what investigative reporters do – or, at least, that’s what they ought to do.

In a statement that took over an hour to read to the Ethiopian court, the 31-year-old Schibbye admitted he and his colleague had made a ‘grave and serious miscalculation’ by entering Ethiopia without visas. But he also took the opportunity to defend his profession. ‘I took an enormous risk’, he said. ‘But such risks are a part of my job as a foreign correspondent. Every day, colleagues of mine get shot when entering into conflict zones. We don’t do it to support any group and absolutely not in order to support terrorism. I take these risks because I believe in journalism as a positive force, which can bring conflicts to readers’ attention and make them understand those conflicts.’

Indeed, at a time when few are willing to invest the time and resources required for investigative reporting, Persson and Schibbye’s unapologetic approach is refreshing. Investigative journalism is costly, time-consuming and can be dangerous. It sometimes requires breaking the law in order to get to the truth.

The Swedish journalists may have made a grave miscalculation. They may even have underestimated the risks. After all, Ethiopian anti-terror legislation, passed in 2009, has an ambiguous and broad definition of terrorist activity. Rights groups claim it has been used as an excuse to clamp down on dissent. The legislation also deprives defendants of the right to be presumed innocent. So, once accused, the odds were stacked against Persson and Schibbye.

But the journalists’ aim – to set rumour apart from fact, to get to the truth of the matter even at great personal risk – is entirely defensible. Without journalists willing to put themselves out there in that way, all we get is speculation – the kind of speculation that has, in fact, intensified since Persson and Schibbye’s arrest. There is a lot of talk now about dodgy dealings, cover-ups, brutal African-style repression, corrupt politicians and so on. This kind of speculation, which is often coloured by prejudice, may be effective in sustaining the suspense of Hollywood movies, but in reporting it’s the truth that matters.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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