Today, 100 days has passed since six bloggers and three journalists were arrested in Ethiopia. The bloggers, Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kiberet, Natnael Feleke and Abel Wabela, are members of an independent blogger and activist group called Zone 9. Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye are freelancing journalists and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis are senior editor.
Zone 9 Bloggers and Journalists
Ethiopia is with its almost 94 million population the second most populated country in Africa. Nevertheless, it does not according to an interview with Endalkachew Chala by Global Voices, have an independent daily newspaper or independent media. There was a need of an alternative voice and the Zone 9:ers therefore began blogging and using social media to write on subjects related to human rights. The name of the group, Zone 9, refers to the zones of the notorious Ethiopian Kality prison, where political prisoners and journalists are being held. The prison has eight zones, but the ninth “zone” refers to the rest of Ethiopia. Even if being outside of the prison walls – you are never truly free; any freethinking individual may be arrested. The bloggers wanted to be the voice of this ninth zone.
In the interview, Endalkachew says that the group had campaigns about respecting the constitution, stopping censorship and respecting the right to demonstrate. The group also visited political prisoners, such as journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. They wanted to bring the publics’ attention to them by using social media. Zone 9 decided to collaborate with NGO:s – human right organizations – about the situation in Ethiopia regarding human rights and freedom of expression. They wanted to do a report and invited Ethiopian journalists to report and document about the repression they were facing while working as journalists. Despite the fact that what the group did was constitutional, the government of Ethiopia labeled it a crime. The group had all ready been facing surveillance because of their work – but now the surveillance by the government worsened. The government feared that the groups’ activities could lead to the people of Ethiopia beginning to ask critical questions. The group were threatened and told that they should stop with what they were doing. However, the Zone 9:ers did not stop because they knew that what they did was not only good – but also constitutional. They continued but the harassment and surveillance intensified. Eventually, the group was forced to go inactive. Seven months later they continued their blogging – but got arrested just after two days.
The bloggers and journalists were taken to the Maekelawi Police Station, the federal detention center in Addis Ababa. The center is a place known for torture, poor detention conditions and unlawful interrogation tactics. Several court hearings took place during which the prosecutors failed to present any evidence. According to the blog Zone9ers ‘trial’, this pre-trial procedure “is (a) procedure of keeping people in custody before the start of their trial. In common law tradition it is called remand. It is assumed remand prisoners are not guilty until proven otherwise but in Ethiopian justice system most of the time it is the inverse – you are guilty until proven otherwise.”
Recently, the bloggers and journalists mentioned were formally charged with terrorism acts and another blogger, Solyana Shimeles, was charged in absentia. The bloggers are according to Article 19 accused of associating with Ginbot 7 and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), organizations banned as terrorist networks. However, the bloggers and journalists were openly critical to the outlawed groups and deny association with them. The bloggers are also charged for organising to destabilize the country and for attending a digital security training using an open source software, Security in a Box. The software are being used by journalists and human rights defenders to protect their anonymity, according to the mentioned interview with Henry Maina for Article 19. They were also accused of working with foreign human rights organizations, according to Committee to Protect Journalists.
The charged bloggers and journalists have been transferred to the Kality prison, and their trial begins tomorrow, on August 4.
Ethiopia – A country where dissent is silenced
Ethiopia is located in the Horn of Africa and is bordered by Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea and Djibouti. Ethiopia is one of the greatest violators of freedom of expression. According to Al Jazeera, at least 41 journalists have fled repression during the past five years, and the country currently ranks 143 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index . What happened to the bloggers and journalists is not uncommon in a country where dissent and freethinking is being suppressed. The anti-terrorism law enacted 2009, has according to mentioned Article19 article been used to prosecute 22 journalists and bloggers: “This law contains unacceptably broad definitions for ‘terrorist acts’ and grants the government almost unlimited powers to spy on and harass human rights defenders,” says Maina. The law has been widely criticized.
The Huffington Post writes that the country is operating a sophisticated monitoring and filtering system for the Internet. In an interview by BilisummaaTV Oromia, Endalkachew is being asked why the Ethiopian gonverment is so concerned about a few bloggers considering the fact that only about 1.5 percent is connected to the Internet. Endalkachew states that change often comes from the cities – and most internet users are in the cities. If one is controlling what information people recieves, one can avoid possible critizism.
The arrests has sparked an outrage and the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers is circulating in social media. July 31, Global Voices held a Tweethathon where people all over the world could show their support for the detainees. In July, 41 organizations, such as Amnesty International, Article 19 Eastern Africa, Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch called for the release of the bloggers and journalists. When the bloggers had been detained for 90 days, anyone who wanted could send messages of support which were posted on this website. Yesterday, an event called ZoneLight was held in DC August 2. Candles were lit in support and devotion.
The bloggers motto are “we blog because we care”.
Today, 100 days has passed. Let us never forget, let us never give up.
Let us continue showing that we care for them. They cared for us.