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The story of the two Swedish journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia being charged with and found guilty of ‘supporting terrorism’ has been something of a success for those who want to draw attention to human rights abuses, gaining significant coverage in major news sources all over the world. Often, human rights issues and angles are a little dry because of how legally focused it is; with a few exceptions, lawyers aren’t often the most exciting writers in the world. This dryness makes it a little hard for the majority of a) the public and b) editors who want to make money to read or publish many of their stories.
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Don't let classics geeks convince you he's exciting to read

Cicero - a wonderful lawyer, intellectual and theorist. Nevertheless, his prose is unlikely to fire you up.

Background

Despite a paucity of evidence, the Ethiopian courts have upheld the country’s 2009 Anti-terrorism Law, leading to an 11 year sentence for  reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, delivered on the 29th of December. The two Swedes were accused of aiding the opposition Ogaden National Liberation Front, deemed a terrorist organisation by the Ehtiopian government. Numerous human rights groups had previously warned about the law, claiming that it fails to stand up to international legal standards of freedom of expression – the anti-terrorism law is so broad it can be enacted against more or less anyone.

The BBC reported on their convictions,

“The men acknowledged during their trial that they had held talks with ONLF leaders in London and Nairobi, before entering Ethiopia from Somalia and meeting about 20 members of the group 40km (25 miles) from the border.

However, they say their contacts with the ONLF were intended to help them to get into a region the Ethiopian authorities will not allow journalists to enter.

They say they wanted to report on the activities of a Swedish oil company, Lundin Petroleum, in the Ogaden.”

Who’s talking about this?

1. Old media

The problems of the Horn of Africa region, particularly in the last 18 month, have been widely reported by the traditional media – from famine to political instability to war. The case of the two Swedish journalists doesn’t come out of left field and adds to a whole range of mainstay journalistic topics (unlike human rights). While Somalia was recently called the world’s “foremost failed state” by British Foreign Secretary William Hague – and its issues are not confined within its borders – the situation in Ethiopia has also worsened considerably. At the end of last month, Nicholas Kristoff used his column in the New York Times to draw attention to the abuses of Ethiopian President, Meles Zenawi, encouraging his 1.2 million Twitter followers to help him to track down the leader during the Davos conference,

“I want to ask him why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. “

If there’s anything that gets serious journalists fired up, it’s people attacking, imprisoning or executing other journalists. Fair enough. But it also isn’t anything new.

2. Human rights activists

Human rights activist groups exist in a strange limbo. From my experience, they don’t really consider themselves wholly part of the development world or the legal world. Perhaps as a result of this lack of place, the large human rights groups (there are more than just Amnesty!) tend to have a strange relationship with the press and the general public. All too often, they rely on publishing large, printed reports that don’t see a lot of action outside of the human rights circles. This isn’t true across the board, of course, but I don’t think many people in human rights would argue that their output is particularly widely recieved in the general public.

Because it is both very specialised and competitive, the people who become experts in the field are necessarily going to think about, understand and discuss the issues in a highly focused and high-level way. The reason they got there is because they know a lot about a hard subject. This does not naturally translate to mass-market appeal.

3. New media

How many of you reading this recieve emails or tweets or facebook updates from organisations like Avaaz or Change.org? I’d imagine it’s quite a few. Even if you don’t, the journalists who report in the newspapers you read definitely do.

This is the era of citizen journalism – the explosion of social media activists, bloggers and crowd mapping from previously unheard voices has been the media story of the last year. How many articles have you seen that quote ‘eye witness’ accounts from Twitter? Some media organisations have realised just how important social media can be to their reporting. At the end of last year, a mobile news site went as far as to sue a former employee for keeping the followers he had attracted whilst working for them.

Citizen journalists are galvanising the wider community and getting the attention of the mainstream media. They are also getting unprecedented numbers of people involved in activism – take a look at this infographic on SOPA blackout day for a recent example.

Making the difference

Most of us spend far too long on our phones and computers as it is. The way in which new media activists grab the attention of those of us idly refreshing our inboxes as well as journalists under pressure to find and write an exciting story is great. A major problem at this stage is the danger of cutting the sectoral experts – in this case, the human rights defenders – out of the process, but this is situation that all the involved parties have a hand in creating.

As long as it continues to get people to take action in a widespread way, no one is going to want to stop it. The people taking on these niche issues and spreading awareness and campaigns in a viral way need to utilise the input and expertise of more experienced activist groups to ensure their enthusiasm and networking skills are allied with the requisite knowledge to target campaigns at truly problematic and/or influential issues. Let the cooperation commence!

Please take 30 seconds to try and create more pressure to pardon the two Swedish journalists in Ethiopia

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