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In Ethiopia, terrorism charges against five journalists

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From left, Reeyot, Woubshet, Persson, and Schibbye. (Feteh, Awramba Times, Kontinent)

New York, September 7, 2011--Ethiopia filed terrorism charges on Tuesday against four independent journalists detained in the country since June and July, along with the editor of a U.S.-based news forum critical of the Addis Ababa government, according to local sources and news reports.

"We condemn Ethiopia's repeated use of sweeping terrorism laws to censor independent reporting," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "The government may not like reporters talking to groups it deems to be terrorist organizations, but that's what journalists do. Anything less would just make them mouthpieces. The authorities must drop these ridiculous charges immediately and release our colleagues."

Defense lawyers for Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of leading independent weekly Awramba Times, and Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with weekly Feteh, told CPJ today that the journalists appeared before Ethiopia's High Court on Tuesday and were formally charged under the country's far-reaching antiterrorism law. The lawyers said they do not have details about the charges because they were not notified about Tuesday's hearing and were not present. Taye and Alemu have been in detention since arrest in June on vague accusations of involvement in a terrorism plot.

Terrorism charges were also filed in absentia against Elias Kifle, editor of the U.S.-based anti-government forum Ethiopian Review, according to local sources.

Also charged with terrorism on Tuesday were Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye who were arrested in eastern Ethiopia in July while reporting on the activities of armed separatists of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to news reports. In an email to CPJ, Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jörle confirmed the reports and said the journalists, contributors to the Sweden-based photo agency Kontinent, did not have their lawyers present when they were charged with "terrorism and violation on migration laws."

In an interview with Bloomberg today, Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal said the Swedish journalists "entered the country with a bunch of terrorists," a reference to the government's June designation of the ONLF as a terrorist entity. Referencing a video posted on the pro-government Ogaden website Cakaara News in July, which purports to show Persson handling an assault rifle, Kemal added: "They have even taken weapons training." Agence France-Presse reported that a government prosecutor showed footage of the video during Tuesday's hearing.

The footage appears to have been shot by the journalists themselves, although its authenticity has not been independently confirmed. The footage also shows the journalists doing routine work such as adjusting their camera equipment, reviewing maps, taking photos, and interviewing people in refugee camps. Separate footage, apparently shot by authorities, shows the journalists, in bandages, speaking under duress after their capture. "We came to the Ogaden region to do interviews with the ONLF," Schibbye is heard saying.

The Ethiopian government has blocked independent news media access to the Somali-speaking Ogaden region, where the ONLF has been waging a low-level insurgency since 1984, according to CPJ research. U.S. journalist Heather Murdock was expelled in 2010 while reporting near the Ogaden, while a New York Times team reporting in the region was jailed for several days in 2007 before being released without charge. 

Editor's note: The original text of this alert was modified in the final paragraph to correct that The New York Times team was jailed and then released without charge. The journalists were not expelled.

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