The Ethiopian government has pardoned Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson — two Swedish journalists detained in July 2011 on terrorism charges and convicted in December last year.
Several Ethiopian journalists, including prominent blogger Eskinder Nega who was sentenced to 18 years in prison earlier this year, remain incarcerated. Over the last decade, Ethiopia has arrested seven journalists and forced another 79 reporters into exile, according to the Committee for Protection of Journalists.
Mr. Schibbye and Mr. Persson were serving eleven-year sentences for illegally entering Eastern Ethiopia with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an ethnic Somali self-determination party designated as a terror group by the Ethiopian government. Their sentencing received widespread condemnation abroad and a furious defence by the government in Ethiopia.
“They are, at the very least, messenger boys of terrorists”, said the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in an interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten in October last year. Meles died last month, after 21 years in office.
At a press conference in Addis Ababa on Monday, Minister for Justice Berhan Hailu insisted that the journalists were released as a matter of procedure and that the government had not succumbed to international pressure.
Mr. Schibbye and Mr. Persson were charged with collaboration and association with the banned ONLF and of illegally entering Ethiopia without proper documentation. Reading from their pardon petition, Mr. Berhan said the journalists admitted that they allowed themselves to be “misused and mislead by the ONLF”.
Mr. Berhan also made clear that the decision to pardon the journalists was taken in July this year, while Mr. Meles was still alive.
The release of the journalists comes at a time when analysts in Ethiopia and abroad are wondering if the new dispensation will mean greater press freedom.