It will be one year this weekend since six bloggers were arrested in Addis Ababa, just days after the group announced on Facebook that their Zone 9 blog would resume publishing after seven months of inactivity. As the anniversary of the arrests approaches on Saturday, Soleyana S. Gebremichale, one of the Zone 9 founders who was charged in absentia, told me the situation was not hopeless.
"International advocacy is important not only to pressure the Ethiopian government but also to show solidarity for people in prison," Soleyana, who is currently based in Washington, D.C., said. "The words and support that we show them are their strength in prison."
The six Zone 9 bloggers, arrested along with three journalists not connected to the blog, were held in detention until mid-July when a court in Addis Ababa charged all those being held, and Soleyana, with terrorism. Working with human rights organizations and participating in an email encryption training session were among the activities that led to the charges, according to reports. Their charge sheet, translated into English from Amharic, can be found here in full.
The Zone 9 bloggers--Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berhane, Natnail Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, and Abel Wabella--and three journalists--Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Waldyes, and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis--have now spent a full year in prison.
Among them is a lawyer and lecturer, an economist, and an IT specialist. One of them is a data expert in Ethiopia's Ministry of Health, another is an engineer for Ethiopian Airlines. They are writers, advocates, and activists, but the Zone 9 bloggers are not terrorists.
According to reports, these young professionals from a range of backgrounds were united by a desire for a more just, transparent, and democratic Ethiopia. The Zone 9 bloggers used their blog, which is still running, as a platform to write about social justice, democracy, and human rights. They spoke out about censorship and challenged corruption.
"Zone 9 existed because we had a hope that we could contribute for the public discourse," Soleyana told me.
The trial has been adjourned 26 times, most recently on April 8, according to a site that tracks its progress. The proceedings are scheduled to resume on May 26. According to the Trial Tracker Blog, which publishes news reports and details of campaigns about Zone 9, police continue to search for evidence to support the charges and failed to provide the defense with access to evidence they allegedly have. A request by the defense for the removal of judge, who the bloggers' lawyer said had been "unfair" throughout the trial, was rejected.
According to the same site, in some instances family and friends were allegedly prevented from entering the courtroom. The nongovernmental organization Ethiopia Human Rights Project reported that "Female detainees could not be visited by friends and relatives" and that when visits were permitted, they were limited to six people only, for a maximum of 20 minutes a day.
Ethiopian officials have repeatedly rejected external criticism of their handling of the Zone 9 case, according to news reports including this piece by The Washington Post. According to the Post, the government denied the bloggers were imprisoned for their writing, and said they were on trial for attempting to sabotage the state. This sentiment was echoed by Communication Affairs Minister Redwan Hussein who, at a press conference in May last year, said of the Zone 9 bloggers, "Most of them are not journalists but activists ... if someone engaged in criminal activities, he will face prosecution regardless of his profession."
Ethiopia, ranked fourth on CPJ's list of the 10 Most Censored Countries, has consistently demonstrated itself to be hostile to the idea of a free press, using charges of terrorism to justify long jail sentences of journalists. In a series of trials documented by CPJ over the past four years, deputy editor of Awramba Times, Woubshet Taye was sentenced to 14 years, freelance writer Eskinder Nega to 18 years, and Feteh journalist Reeyot Alemu to 14 years, reduced to five on appeal. Prison authorities were accused of denying adequate medical attention to Reeyot and Temesghen Desalegn, the owner of Feteh magazine. And in two reports released by Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, researchers said Ethiopia appeared to have used malware and surveillance tools to try to monitor Ethiopian journalists around the world.
Soleyana welcomed international attention to her colleagues' plight. "Though it seems like the impact is slow and sometimes invisible I believe that the international pressure would contribute to change the decision of the Ethiopian government," she said.
Despite international criticism, Ethiopia has been defending its anti-terror laws for years. Speaking to the BBC in 2014, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn defended them as being similar to that of the UK terror laws. In 2012, the then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defended the laws in Parliament. In response to a critical op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, the country's Foreign Ministry argued that Ethiopia did respect press freedom, according to reports.
From Al-Shabab's attack at Garissa in Kenya this month and Boko Haram's relentless violence against Nigerians, to the senseless acts of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, you don't have to look far to find examples of terrorism across the African continent.
But as former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stressed in May last year, in response to Ethiopia's crackdown on the press, "The fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations."
In a statement this week, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, and the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom, Heiner Bielefeldt, said: "By actively promoting and protecting human rights, states contribute to preventing terrorism in an effort to address its root causes and risk factors."
At a time when national leaders should be protecting rights and providing reassurance from very real threats like these, many governments choose instead to crush those voices most in need of being heard. This has certainly been true in Ethiopia.
- Support jailed journalists in Ethiopia and other countries by joining CPJ's "Press Uncuffed" campaign.