Reporters Without Borders is very worried by the conditions in which three journalists and six members of the Zone9 blog collective have been held since their arrests in Addis Ababa on 25 and 26 April 2014, and the way the legal process is being violated.
The detention of the nine news providers, whose trial was initially scheduled for 7 and 8 May, has been extended after the court gave the police ten more days to continue their investigation. The accused are now scheduled to appear before the Arada district court in Addis Ababa on 17 and 18 May.
Media citing government sources declared that the original charges of “working with foreign human rights organizations to destabilize the nation” may be changed to “attempting to use social media to incite chaos with the support of terrorist organizations.”
Defence lawyer Amha Mekonnen told media that he had not been allowed to visit his clients in prison and was therefore unable to properly prepare their defence. ‘‘I have repeatedly tried to see my clients but my requests were denied,’’ he said, hinting that he might cease to represent them if access continued to be impossible.
Visits by family and friends have also reportedly so far been denied in clear violation of article 21 (2) of the Ethiopian constitution, which guarantees the detained ‘‘the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse, close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors.’’
Two of the detained Zone9 bloggers, Befikadu Hailu and Abel Wabela, told the court they had been subjected to torture. Although the police denied their claims, the court noted that any form of torture was unconstitutional.
“The conduct of this case so far offers no guarantees of a fair trial and violates the constitution,” declared Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “Furthermore, the amended charges send a worrying signal as it would show that the government is again treating journalists and bloggers as terrorists. We urge the government to respect its international obligations and guarantee freedom of information by dropping all charges.”
The much-criticized anti-terrorism law that Ethiopia adopted in 2009 as repeatedly been used to prosecute and imprison journalists.
Ethiopia is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.