Sweden is not Ethiopia, but pretending that they have nothing in common does no one any favours.
by Christian Christensen
( Aljazeera ) In 2012, after having been sentenced to 11 years in prison for “terrorism” for illegally entering Ethiopia from Somalia in the presence of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye took the advice of their legal council, confessed to their “crimes” and requested an official pardon. It was a pragmatic move – both journalists vehemently denied the charges and considered any confession to be a charade – taken to save their own skins.
The request was granted, and the journalists were released after 438 days in jail. Their capture, trial, imprisonment and subsequent release were, as one would expect, all big news stories in Sweden. As told in the media, the Persson/Schibbye story followed a standard trope: Backward, undemocratic Africa versus progressive, democratic Sweden. Human rights violators versus human rights defenders. And, frankly, who could argue with that framing of events?
Persson and Schibbye, as it turns out. Upon their return to Sweden, the two reporters, while naturally critical of the Ethiopian regime, spared no words in their critique of Sweden. Schibbiye, for example, had this to say:
“Relations between Sweden and Ethiopia have never been as good as they are now. After having imprisoned two Swedish journalists for 14 months, some kind of reconciliation has taken place. We are in a new phase and H&M and Ikea will be starting up there (in Ethiopia).”
Schibbye also noted in a recent public lecture in Uppsala that he and Persson were told by Swedish officials that there was no way the Swedish government would sacrifice their relations with Ethiopia over their case, no matter how blatant the injustice (hence the suggestion that the two men falsely “confess”). And, Johan Persson made note of how treatment of journalists and whistleblowers in the supposedly “developed” world helped to justify their treatment:
“This double-standard… just look at the USA where whisteblowers are chased all over the world and threatened with life in prison. That is the problem. Ethiopia can always say, ‘We are no worse than you’.”
While their imprisonment and release garnered much attention, their critique of the relationship between Swedish diplomacy and economic interests in an authoritarian regime did not. Interestingly, and perhaps lesser-known, is the fact that the journalists were in Ethiopia to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the Sweden-based Lundin Petrolium. Read more on Aljazeera…