Exceptions to the democratic rule

Pretending that democracies and authoritarian regimes have nothing in common does no one any favours.

The Swedish journalists were released after 438 days in an Ethiopian jail [AFP]

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? 

Gender inequality persists in Swedish boardrooms

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. 

Undemocratic thuggery

The Persson/Schibbye case is one of many in recent years where international authoritarianism is viewed by media in, for example, Europe and the United States with a superior, disapproving shake of the head, while domestic or regional rights violations (or turning a blind eye to such violations in “allied” states) are often dismissed as exceptions which prove the democratic rule. 

Jailing journalists for 14 months? Undemocratic thuggery. Negotiating with those same undemocratic officials to further privately-owned economic interests? Good diplomacy. 

Persson’s point about Snowden – which can also be made about Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown and Jeremy Hammond– is key: The imprisonment and threatened imprisonment of individuals who have blown the whistle on perceived injustices not only undermines the credibility of the governments who pursue these people, it also calls into question the consistency of media which lament a lack of democratic values in Country X while significant violations take place, in relative media silence, in their own Backyard Y. 

This is not to say that the presence of a functional Guantanamo prison – in any way – justifies the killing of 88 protesters in Ukraine. Nor does it suggest that coverage of Kiev, Gezi, Cairo or Rio is de facto inaccurate because the death penalty does not get enough critical press in the US.

But, as I noted in a piece on Turkey, those engaged in the suppression of democratic rights often point to both journalists and politicians in Europe and US and accuse them of double-standards. And we have provided them with that ammunition. Sweden is not Ethiopia, but pretending that they have nothing in common does no one any favours.

I have also made the argument that one of the problems with coverage of recent global protests has been a short-term perspective: When the images are hot and sexy, there is attention (for a good discussion on “disaster porn” in relation to Ukraine, see the piece by Sarah Kendzior and reaction from Emily Bell), but when the far less sexy long-term process of democratisation begins, media attention fades.

This leaves us with images of Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and Ukraine as rooted in protest and violence, divorced from any semblance of progress. But there is more. These images are enhanced and solidified by an unwillingness to confront, in a comprehensive fashion, our own violent, anti-democratic tendencies – from drones to weapons exports to the death penalty.

This unwillingness allows us to take a position of righteous indignation rife with hypocrisy.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.