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Seven international press freedom and human rights organisations, led by the Media Legal Defence Initiative, have called on experts at the African Commission and the United Nations to address the arbitrary arrest and detention of nine Ethiopian bloggers, journalists and human rights defenders. Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, and Abel Wabela are members of a group known as “Zone9”, an independent blog that identifies itself as “an informal group of young Ethiopian bloggers working together to create an alternative independent narration of the socio-political conditions in Ethiopia.” Zone9 is a popular social media platform, which has been emerging as one of the leading spaces for campaigns on freedom of expression and constitutional rights. The six were arrested at their offices and in the street on 25 April, afters which their homes were searched and the police confiscated private laptops and literature. Freelance journalists Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were arrested on the same day and journalist Asmamaw Hailegeorgis of Addis Guday newspaper was arrested one day later, 26 April. Free Zone 9 bloggers campaign image. Created by Hugh D'Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat. Free Zone 9 bloggers campaign image. Created by Hugh D'Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat. All nine bloggers, journalists and human rights defenders have been taken to the notorious Maekelawi prison, where they are being held incommunicado. Family members have been allowed to leave food, but the the activists have been denied access to legal counsel. The arrests constitute the widest crackdown on dissenting voices in Ethiopia since the post-election mass arrests in 2005. In a press statement yesterday, UN High Commissioner for Navi Pillay expressed her concern: “The fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations. And working with foreign human rights organisations cannot be considered a crime. Over the past few years, the space for dissenting voices has been shrinking dramatically in Ethiopia….In its efforts to combat terrorism, the Ethiopian Government must comply at all times with its human rights obligations under international law.” No formal charges have been filed against the bloggers and journalists so far, but the majority of journalists and human rights defenders jailed by Ethiopia over the past years, including Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been charged under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, a sweepingly broad piece of legislation that has been used to target and jail numerous human rights defenders and dissenting voices in the country. The Media Legal Defence Initiative, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, CIVICUS, Global Voices, PEN American Center, Committee to Protect Journalists and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an Urgent Appeal with the Special Mandates of the African Commission and United Nations Human Rights Council, requesting they intervene to secure the immediate release of the nine human rights defenders. In their letter, the organisations argue that the arrests and detention of the Zone9 bloggers and journalists due to the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression is in violation of Ethiopia’s obligations under both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Specifically, denying these nine prisoners access to legal counsel is a clear violation of their right to a fair trial. The organisations have requested the AU and UN Special Rapporteurs to help secure the immediate release of the activists and declare their arrest and continuing detention a gross violation of their human rights. The AU and UN experts have several options to address this urgent human rights violation. The African Commission, which is currently holding its 55th session in Luanda, Angola, can adopt a resolution on the matter, condemning the arrests and calling upon Ethiopia to immediately release the human rights defenders. Both the AU and UN Special Rapporteurs can request a visit to Ethiopia to carry out investigations. As a current member of the UN Human Rights Council, Ethiopia would be compelled to grant such a request, based on its obligations under General Assembly resolution 60/251, which states that Council members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and ”fully cooperate with the Council.” The Urgent Appeal calls upon the Special Mandates to hold Ethiopia to those firm commitments. Read the Appeal here (PDF): 20140503 AU UN Urgent Appeal 9 Ethiopian journalists

Zone 9 blogger urges world to call for freedom in Ethiopia

By Rachael Levy/CPJ Google Journalism Fellow

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.

Source: CPJ