Life inside Ethiopia’s brutal prison

By Katherine Jacobsen


My name is Martin Schibbye.  I am a Swedish freelance journalist.  I did a story in summer 2011 for a bimonthly magazine, Filter, an investigative report about a Swedish oil company and together with the photographer Yuhan Person, I went illegally into Ethiopia from Somalia.  We had to do that because it is a closed region and so we chose to enter illegally.  But we were shot and captured by Ethiopian troops.  And after 45 hellish days in the desert, we were taken to Addis Ababa and later on sentenced to 11 years for terrorism and held in the Kaliti Federal Prison for 14 months before we were pardoned.

The brutality by the Ethiopian regime and their hatred towards journalism surprised us.  Because all throughout we were not given medical care, we were not taken to an embassy, we were held in the desert for five days.

I mean, they staged attack with dressed up rebels and spent four days shooting a video that’s supposed to show what’s happening when we are arrested and they bring in dead bodies for the film and they bring in fake rebels to testify against us.

Ethiopia chose to take this as a chance to scare other local journalists and to scare other journalists from entering the area.

There are a lot of young, brave journalists today, some in jail, some are heading for jail and some are forced into exile.

You have seven local journalists that are still in Kaliti and they all faced a choice.  They knew what would happen to them if they stayed and continued to write.  I mean, their love to this profession journalism and their love for their country and for their people and for the truth, I mean, made them stay and made them write.  And that led them to Kaliti.

When we were in the prison, people were, I mean crying out for news and information in the prison.  In prison, the radio is forbidden since the election in 2005-2006.  All the prisoners are forced to watch Ethiopian state television one hour everyday and foreign media is banned.  But still, I mean relatives who come to visit prisoners, they listen to Voice of America and read blogs — it gets in to the prisoners, even from this exiled media, so they’re really, really important in creating another picture.

The big danger for the exiled media is to stay objective and also give a voice to the regime and the party and not become propagandists, but try and be professional journalists.  That is… I would say that’s the main task and the main difficulty for all of the exiled media.

Jefferson Mok, Katherine Jacobsen, Ngozi Onouha and Alexandra Katsoulis reported on Ethiopia