In April, the Ethiopian government imprisoned nine journalists, including six bloggers from Zone 9, in one of the worst crackdowns against free expression in the country. Ethiopia is the second worst jailer of journalists in Africa, trailing only Eritrea, according to CPJ research.
Ethiopian government officials accuse the Zone 9 bloggers of working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in Ethiopia. The group wrote about political repression and social injustice, and their blogs were frequently blocked inside the country. Two months after their arrests, they have yet to be officially charged.
Endalkachew H/Michael, one of the co-founders of Zone 9, is pursuing his doctorate in media studies at the University of Oregon and spoke with CPJ about press freedom in Ethiopia.
What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation. You can view CPJ’s Storify on the bloggers here.
Rachael Levy: Describe Zone 9 and what it seeks to achieve.
Endalkachew H/Michael: Zone 9 is a group of young bloggers who started blogging in 2012. We’ve been doing a lot of reporting on human rights issues. We are an online media group that had been trying to give a fact-based narrative of the Ethiopian situation, on human rights, economic and political issues.
We’ve also had the experience of doing advocacy on human rights issues. … We had four campaigns, one on the Ethiopian constitution. The second one was about censorship. The third was about demonstrating, the right to demonstrate, and the last one was about creating a better Ethiopia.
RL: Why weren’t you arrested with the other bloggers?
EM: The incarceration happened just after I left Ethiopia [to study in the U.S.]. … They went to my own family’s house and they went to other members of Zone 9 families’ houses. I would have also been in prison had I not been here. And I’m sure I will be charged with my friends. I’m waiting to learn what will be the charge.
RL: Did you expect the government to arrest your colleagues?
EM: Actually we had been receiving a lot of threats and harassment from security people, and they always come and threaten us individually by telling us we should stop what we’re doing–that we should support the government.
But we have persisted, and actually we had our own mechanisms of coping with these threats. We have been trying to avoid writing about sensitive issues for the time being. And we had a lot of toning down of our own messages. … But we never expected they would come in the way they have come and arrest us and incarcerate us. … The scale is really unimaginable.
RL: You were in the U.S. for your studies when your colleagues were arrested. How did you feel being so far from home?
EM: It was a terrible experience. I was trying to communicate with the family members immediately when I heard the news. … One of my friends informed me that my colleague was detained and he was trying to update me. He just put the last word that he heard that someone was coming to get [him] and he was incarcerated immediately after he had updated that information for me. And that was really a terrible moment.
I had not been in a kind of normal situation since my friends and my colleagues were incarcerated. And we know that the situation in Ethiopian detention centers is not good. The human rights situation in Addis [Ababa] is really terrible.
Two months, and I’m still in a state of shock, I’m still in a state of confusion. It’s very difficult for me to come to my senses and to understand and process what’s going on.
RL: Have you been able to contact them?
EM: We have not had full communication with them, and their lawyers have not been able to communicate with them.
RL: What can the public do to advocate for the Zone 9 bloggers?
EM: Write, blog, use social media. Now, as time goes on, other things have started to come up and people have started to put on hold this situation. But the situation is the same. 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.
RL: What do you think the best approach is to bring maximal impact to Ethiopia?
EM: We need to engage with global political leaders and show them how a repressive situation is getting worse and worse. … We need to identify the pressure points. For me, that is engaging the Ethiopian politicians with global leaders.
RL: What is on the horizon for press freedom in Ethiopia?
EM: It’s getting worse. Elections are coming up in May 2015, the national general parliamentary elections. And we’ve been hearing that the government is trying to train bloggers and social media users to try to engineer the public opinion on social media because social media is a stronghold for people who have no access to the traditional media. [Editor’s note: CPJ tried to contact Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal, Minister of Information Redwan Hussain, and public relations official Asefa Alemayahu; none immediately returned our phone messages or emailed requests for comment.]
Ethiopians’ Internet penetration is less than 2 percent. Ethiopia is the second most populous country [in Africa]. We have only one government monopoly Internet service provider. … Things are getting worse. The picture that I’m trying to paint here is really gloomy. The people in power are trying to control the flow of information into the country. … Every possible way of trying to engage with people is literally becoming impossible. There is no newspaper, no daily newspaper for a country like Ethiopia with a population of 90 million.
RL: How is the Ethiopian situation related to the rest of Africa? For example, in Egypt, a judge recently sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists to seven to 10 years in prison. Several other journalists are imprisoned there as well.
EM: The Ethiopian government is giving a kind of message to the rest of the African governments, to get away with gross violations of human rights. One of the things that is common in Ethiopia is arresting bloggers or journalists and sentencing them to twenty-something years–for example, Eskinder Nega, one of the prominent bloggers, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison just for blogging. And the rest of the African governments are taking a lesson from that. … It’s giving the wrong message that African governments can get away with impunity. [The Ethiopian authorities] are trying to make impunity as mainstream as possible. So that’s what happened in Egypt now. It’s all common in the region. It has this chilling effect on freedom of expression.
RL: You mentioned fewer than 2 percent of the Ethiopian population has an Internet connection. Why does the government care so much about a few bloggers?
EM: There are different theories about that. The first one is that change comes from the elite, comes from cities–and people who use Internet are from cities. If you try to control people’s information who are living in cities, you can control all sorts of revolutions or instability. … There is this tendency of trying to use every bit of information for its own sake.
The government’s constitution, which is a very good constitution, claims that the public media should be ruled by the public, but in the Ethiopian case, it’s ruled by the government. 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.
Editor’s note: The first paragraph of this post has been corrected to reflect that of nine journalists arrested in April, only six were Zone 9 bloggers, not all nine as previously stated.