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

The Imprisonment of Ethiopian Bloggers

by Mayukh Sen
Internet Monitor

This is Zone Nine: The Continued Imprisonment of Six Ethiopian Bloggers

There’s a prison, hidden in the suburbs of Addis Ababa, named Kality. Home to many of Ethiopia’s political prisoners, the prison is divided into eight zones. The last of these zones, Zone Eight, is home to detained journalists, human rights activists, and dissidents.Free Zone 9 Bloggers banner. Original design by Hugh D'Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat.

To some Ethiopian citizens, there is a Ninth Zone – a Zone dedicated to the “proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live”. In 2012, a group of passionate Ethiopian bloggers launched Zone Nine, a blogging collective that, in its own words, “blogs because it cares”. Zone Nine prides itself on providing a counter to the opinions, voices, and attitudes that dominate Ethiopia’s press.

In April 2014, six of Zone Nine’s bloggers – along with three print journalists suspected of associating with the group – were arrested on the grounds that they were covertly receiving money from foreign human rights organizations to incite violence through social media.

63 days have passed since their detention. The bloggers have appeared in court continually over the past few months while being detained in Addis Ababa’s Maekelawi detention center. No formal charges have been leveled against them as of yet. That said, activists fear that these bloggers and journalists will suffer the same fate that befell Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, two journalists imprisoned and charged with terrorism (a crime that carries heavy fines and a lengthy prison term) in 2011.

The collective has blogged about numerous political issues affecting the Ethiopian populace, hoping to bolster civic discourse in service of social change. In the wake of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death, for example, Zone Nine penned scathing critiques of Zenawi’s proclaimed economic development achievements, casting doubt on his legacies. They also partnered with Global Voices to launch Global Voices in Amharic in 2012, hoping to make international news accessible to local readers.

Since its inception, Zone Nine has amassed a passionate readership within the country. According to its own bloggers, Zone Nine’s stories have occasionally been picked up by wider-known publications within the country, signaling wider support for the messages it has broadcasted. Outside of Ethiopia, the detention of the Zone Nine bloggers has ignited public furor. Global Voices launched a #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtagging campaign and organized a FreeZone9Bloggers Tweetathon on May 14, while UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay criticized Ethiopia’s increasing frequency of charges against journalists on the grounds of terrorism.

– gerardvanmourik @endalk2006 @Eshete #zone9bloggers will overcome someday! #change will visit #ethiopia and no one will be able to stop her

— twsgy™ (@twsgy) June 10, 2014

@natnaelteklu this sums up why #Zone9Bloggers or any concerned citizen is jailed in #Ethiopia, #FreeZone9Bloggers

— Fitsum Tilahun (@fitse_t) June 10, 2014

Slowly losing track of # of days #Zone9Bloggers jailed, but not losing track of them. 1 is a numerical issue, the other is a human issue.

— Maaza Mengiste (@MaazaMengiste) June 7, 2014

The arrests arrive in the context of what some activists fear is a growingly repressive media milieu in Ethiopia. For years, journalists – on and offline – have been susceptible to governmental terrorism charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has claimed that more journalists have fled Ethiopia since May 2013 than in anywhere else in the world. An ambiguously-worded anti-terrorism law, mobilized in 2009, gave the Ethiopian government the power to act against any form of political dissent so long as it is deemed “supportive of armed opposition activity”. The passage of this law has led to the arrest and detention of scores of journalists.

Recently, this fight against journalists has moved online, with Ethiopian governmental officials moving to counteract online criticism of their efforts by training blogging recruits to attack any online criticism of the administration (a practice known as astroturfing). The government has trained over 230 bloggers since May, teaching them how to post comments that sing the praises of the regime on social media—a particularly interesting move, given that less than 2% of Ethiopia’s population has Internet access.