CPJ condemns closed court hearings for nine Ethiopian journalists

Nairobi, July 14, 2014–The Ethiopian government should end its politicized prosecution of nine Ethiopian journalists arrested in April. The journalists and their lawyers were shut out of court room hearings in recent days.

In hearings at the Arada First Instance Court in the capital Addis Ababa on Saturday and Monday, police said that they had wrapped up their investigation into the nine journalists–who were arrested on April 25 and 26–and referred the case for trial to the Federal High Court, according to local journalists, who spoke to the detective leading the investigation. Neither the defendants nor their lawyers were present.

Authorities have held the journalists without informing them of any charges for 80 days at Maekelawi Prison, and only recently allowed family to visit, local journalists told CPJ.

A public prosecutor originally accused the nine detainees–editor Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, and bloggers Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu–of working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in the country, according to news reports.

“Ethiopian authorities are trying to create the impression that this is a legal matter, when in fact it is retaliation and an attempt to silence government detractors,” said CPJ East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes. “We call on the government to release the journalists immediately and end the practice of jailing its critics.”

The bloggers are part of a critical collective known as Zone 9, a name derived from Kality Prison where political prisoners and journalists are held. The group, who published under the motto, “We Blog Because We Care,” had suspended publishing for seven months after harassment by security agents, according to the blog. The arrests followed an April 23 announcement on Facebook that the group would resume publishing. The bloggers are all young professionals; Ambo University fired one of the detainees, lawyer and lecturer Zelalem Kibret, this month for not showing up for work, according to news reports.

Local journalists say the other three journalists–Asmamaw, senior editor at the influential privately owned weekly magazine Addis Guday, and freelancers Tesfalem and Edom–may have been arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with the Zone 9 group.

The date for the next hearing at the Federal High Court is not clear. The journalists’ defense lawyer, Ameha Mekonnen, told a news website dedicated to the journalists’ plight that he plans to file a lawsuit challenging the legal process at the High Court.

CPJ’s repeated attempts to reach Information Minister Redwan Hussein were unsuccessful.