“We blog because we care!” This is the slogan and rallying cry of Zone 9, a group of young Ethiopians writing about social and political issues in their country. For over two months however, blogging has been out of the question for most of them. In late April, six members of the group – which takes its name from an area of Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, where several journalists are jailed – were arrested and have been detained since.
Befeqadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret – all between the age of 25 and 32 – have been accused of “working with foreign organisations” and “receiving finance to incite public violence through social media”, but have yet to be formally charged. Journalists Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Weldeyes and Asemamaw Hailegiorgis were also arrested for their alleged links to Zone 9. Tomorrow, several of them are due in court again.
The story of the case so far, as covered by the blog Justice Matters, makes for worrying reading. The group were initially taken to Maekelawi detention centre, where according to Human Rights Watch, political prisoners have been tortured. They have been prevented from communicating with lawyers and family members. Hearings have predominantly served to extend the police’s investigation period. Police have also appeared to move away from accusing them of conspiring with foreign organisations and towards a terrorism charge, under which other journalists have been sentenced.
Zone 9 have been active since May 2012 and this is not the first time the group has attracted the attention of the authorities. According to their Facebook page, their mission is to provide an “alternative independent narration of the socio-political conditions in Ethiopia and thereby foster public discourse that will result in emergence of ideas for the betterment of the Nation”. They have organised online campaigns, including #EthiopianDream, encouraging their fellow citizens to share messages “question[ing] themselves and discuss[ing] their dream for the country”.
Their work has proved unpopular with the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who came to power following the death of long-time leader Meles Zenawi in 2012. The country’s leadership has continuously come under international criticism for its abysmal record on free expression and other human rights.
The majority of media is state-controlled or sympathetic to the government, with critical news outlets and journalists routinely targeted. Ethiopia is the world’s third worst jailer of the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The sweeping anti-terrorism legislation put in place in 2009 is often utilised to crack down on oppositional voices. Journalist Eskinder Nega publicly questioned the law and its implementation, only to be convicted to 18 years in prison under it in 2012.
Beyond crackdowns on press freedom, the country’s Muslim community has been hounded by the government, opposition protests are regularly banned, and foreign NGOs are not allowed to work on political and human rights issues.
Zone 9 was set up against this backdrop, and the group soon discovered the, too, were seen as a threat. The blog has been blocked and members have faced harassed at the hands of security services. Last September they took what would end up being a seven-month hiatus from publishing, due to the pressures connected to running the site. The six were arrested only days after announcing that they were to resume blogging.
Despite the fact that internet penetration in Ethiopia currently stands at around 1 per cent, authorities seems very aware of the web’s potential as a platform for free expression and, in turn, dissent. Paul Brown of BBC Monitoring believes the Zone 9 arrests “suggest that the government is taking online activism seriously – probably because elections are due next year.” There have even been reports of the government “training” internet users to post attacks on those who criticise authorities online and to post messages of support for the regime.
Zone 9 co-founder Endalkachew H/Michael recently spoke to CPJ from New York; he left Ethiopia to study in the US shortly before his colleagues were arrested. He says the government are trying to control the flow of information. “There is no plurality of voices in government and media. And they want to control that because there is a sort of plurality on the internet. If you go into the Ethiopian social media sphere, you see all kinds of comments about the government and opposition groups,” he explains.
The government, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the arrests are not connected to journalism but “serious criminal activity”.
“We don’t crack down on journalism or freedom of speech. But if someone tries to use his or her profession to engage in criminal activities, then there is a distinction there,” Getachew Reda, an adviser to the prime minister told Reuters.
But the story has drawn widespread condemnation, from international human rights organisations to news outlets to diplomats, with even US Secretary of State John Kerry calling it a “serious issue”. The hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers has in the past few weeks accumulated outrage and solidarity from across the world. Endalkachew H/Michael says this attention in important. “I want the public to remain focused on this issue. The government is trying to make the public forget the human rights violations and journalists’ poor situation in Ethiopia.”
According to Endalkachew H/Michael, following today’s hearing the case has been referred to a federal high court. The accused were reportedly not present for the hearing.