By Deepa Madhadevan
In Ethiopia, an ever-increasing number of journalists, opposition members, activists, and other dissenting voices, are imprisoned in the eight zones of the infamous Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa.[i] Kaliti Prison is notorious for detaining prisoners of conscience and holding them under terrible conditions, wherein each zone approximately 1,000 prisoners remain enclosed in a small space. However, a ninth zone exists in Ethiopia, one that extends well beyond the walls of Kaliti. The inability to express thoughts freely without fearing for one’s safety represents a virtual ‘imprisonment’ for the vast majority Ethiopian citizens. It was with this principle in mind that “Zone 9” was created.
Zone 9 is a blogging collective, established by journalists and intellectuals and written in Amharic, widely spoken in Ethiopia. On July 17, 2014, a group of nearly a dozen Zone 9 bloggers and journalists were formally charged with terrorism offenses and “Outrages against the Constitution.”[ii]
Their crime? Attempting to hold an open, public conversation about the future of their nation. Unfortunately, the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Bosh bars its citizens from discussion and debate about the future of Ethiopia. The authorities in Addis Ababa continue to designate this type of dialogue as dissent and an act of terrorism – using, as a shield for this denial of rights, violence by armed groups in the country.[iii]
The Ethiopian government has a long history of using bogus claims such as these to quash free expression. In 2011, two Swedish journalists were sentenced to eleven years for terrorist crimes when they attempted to confirm allegations from refugees of human rights violations in Ethiopia.[iv] That same year, the government of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed legislation granting the government sweeping powers to shut down non-governmental organizations (NGOs), newspapers and other possible sources of alternative viewpoints.[v]
The current government has zealously implemented these laws.
Circumstances now are bleak—government censorship and harassment of bloggers is continually silencing prominent voices for human rights. The faces of this crackdown are many, are powerful and are worthy of recognition. For one, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and blogger, was imprisoned in 2012 for reporting on the Arab Spring protests and remarking that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government does not undergo reform.[vi]
Other leading journalists have also been detained or hounded in to exile. And the country’s leading human rights organization, Human Rights Council has been effectively shut down after the government imposed severe restrictions on funding by freezing the organization’s bank accounts after the introduction of the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law), which prohibits human rights organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from foreign sources.7
The Ethiopian government justifies its decision to imprison the Zone 9 bloggers with the assertion that they have association with armed group that oppose the government. While the government does in fact face opposition from armed groups in some of its regions, does blogging about the need for political reform or other key issues facing the country provide a concrete contribution to their cause? Could this blog and the decision of anyone to read it constitute a threat to the Ethiopian government?
How far will the Ethiopian government go to suppress free thought? What happened to Ethiopia’s obligations to protect freedom of expression under the African Charter or the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights?
On August 21, the hearing of the Zone 9 bloggers was postponed until October 15. A call to have the charges dismissed due to violations of procedural rules and illogical reasoning in the charge sheet also was dismissed. And a request for bail to be granted was refused. Even more, the court decided to continue with the trial against one of the bloggers, Soliana Shimeles, in absentia.[i]
The Zone 9 Bloggers and journalists — Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kiberet, Natnael Feleke, Abel Wabela and Soliana Shimeles (in absentia), as well as independent journalists Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis– are all Prisoners of Conscience.[ii] They should be released immediately and unconditionally without charge – as should all other prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia. The government must be challenged to change its approach to governance before everyone in the country becomes a detainee of Zone 9.
[i] ““The Zone 9 Bloggers Are Writing From the Outer Ring of the Prison, the Nation Itself” · Global Voices.” Global Voices Overall RSS 20. July 31, 2014. Accessed March 22, 2015.
[ii] “Ethiopia Charges Bloggers with Organizing to Overthrow Government | Al Jazeera America.” Ethiopia Charges Bloggers with Organizing to Overthrow Government | Al Jazeera America. Accessed March 22, 2015.
[iii] “Ethiopia: End the Onslaught on Dissent as Arrests Continue.” Amnesty International USA. Accessed March 22, 2015.
[iv] “Swedes Tell of Ethiopia Jail Time.” BBC News. Accessed March 22, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-19960209.
[vi] “Free Eskinder Nega.” Free Eskinder Nega. Accessed March 22, 2015.
7″Ethiopia: Future of Last Remaining Human Rights Monitoring NGO in the Balance.” Ethiopia: Future of Last Remaining Human Rights Monitoring NGO in the Balance. Accessed March 27, 2015.
8“Ethiopia: End the Onslaught on Dissent as Arrests Continue.” Amnesty International USA. Accessed March 22, 2015.