Quiet Diplomacy – An Adequate Method or a Shot in the Dark


There are currently three Swedish journalists being held captive abroad: Dawit Isaak in Eritra and Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in Ethiopia. How effective is the present tactic of quiet diplomacy and what does the journalistic community think about this as a way of negotiating for the Swedish journalists’ freedom?

Ten years have passed since the imprisonment of Swedish-Eritrean journalist reporter Dawit Isaak. He is among a group of people who have been imprisoned indefinitely by the Eritrean government, for holding rivalling political views.

Earlier this year in another country in Africa two Swedish journalists are held captive accused of terrorist involvement. Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were in Ethiopia investigating the Ethiopian government troops’ supposed violent treatment of the locals living in the province of Ogaden. The two journalists were travelling with the rebel movement ONLF who is labelled as a terror group by the Ethiopian government. Persson and Schibbye were arrested in Ogaden after and attack which according to Etiopian officials killed 15 rebels.  The trial against the Swedes will start the 18th of October and might result in a long term prison sentence.

These events raise questions regarding the Swedish government’s course of action and what the proper diplomacy solution should be. With the case of Dawit Isaak, the government has applied something called quiet diplomacy. The principle of which is to handle all pertaining diplomatic relations discreetly, without openly condemning the Eritrean government’s actions. This same tactic appears to have been applied on the case of Schibbye and Persson as well.

In the meantime, Dawit Isaak is still in an Eritrean prison and it is not official whether he is alive or dead. This is the reason that critique has been raised, mostly by members of the journalistic community. There is a wide spread campaign in some of Sweden’s larges newspapers to raise awareness of the case of Dawit Isaak. For instance on “Dagens Nyheters” website there is a reverse countdown showing how long Isaak has been in prison

Christer Jönsson, professor emeritus of political science at Lund University talks about different diplomatic solutions depending on the faith of the Ethiopian system of justice. “If you believe that there will be a fair trial, the proper diplomatic solution is quiet diplomacy. This is used to avoid unnecessary provocation which could cause further trouble for the accused. However if you find it to be a political trial then the diplomatic solution asked for is strong political pressure.”

Jesper Bengtsson, journalist and chairman of the Swedish chapter of Reporters Without Borders, believes that quiet diplomacy as a method could work. But, as he tells Utrikesperspektiv, it has been shown many times too ineffective. He cites Dawit Isaak as an example of a situation where a change of tactic from quiet diplomacy to more direct political pressure is necessary.

The government and especially Minister of foreign affairs Carl Bildt, have been accused for mishandling the situation concerning Schibbye and Persson. Last Wednesday (5/10) in an article in Dagens Nyheter, Jonas Nordling, chairman of the journalist union in Sweden, directed sharp criticism against the Swedish Ministry of foreign affairs. Nordling’s critique is directed against Bildt personally, specifically a statement he made regarding the two reporters’ decision to go against the ministry of foreign affairs’ recommendation not to travel to Ethiopia. Eva Franchell, editorial writer for “Aftonbladet”, also sees a problem with Bildt’s statement. She writes that if Swedish journalists were to follow the ministry of foreign affairs’ recommendations of were to go and were not to go there would be no reporting about war and crises at all.

Jesper Bengtsson states that it is too early to tell whether or not the tactic of quiet diplomacy works in the case with Schibbye and Persson. He does however talk about where quiet diplomacy was without a doubt ineffective in this case: “We know that it did not get them (Schibbye and Persson) free in the first place. We also know that they are in risk of being sentenced to long term prison sentences. What is important now is that the Swedish government acts as widely as possible.” Bengtsson states that the process to get the Swedes free should go through channels like the EU and the UN with the economic aid given to Ethiopia as a means of pressure. “All methods must be tested besides the quiet diplomacy.”

Last Friday a manifestation was held in Stockholm and in Gothenburg to put pressure on the government to give the issue of Schibbye and Persson top priority. “The effect of the manifestation is to put more pressure on the government to handle the situation differently which is what you do in a democracy when you’re not happy with how the politicians handle things. “Anna Markowski, press-contact for the manifestation, said about Friday’s event.

Yet another demand is that Carl Bildt and Fredrik Reinfeldt officially take the sides with Schibbye and Persson and the final demand is that the issue be handled on an international level.

If the Swedish politicians decide to change their tactics for handling the situation it will probably be revealed in the near future.


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