A verdict is soon expected for the remaining jailed members of Zone 9 bloggers, a group of Ethiopian bloggers and journalists, who were put behind bars in a case that has widely been seen as a government crackdown on freedom of expression.
In April 2014, nine men and women – made up of three journalists, a human rights lawyer and those working in academia, the government and business – were arrested on charges connected to terrorism, after they created their blog in Amharic, “Zone 9“.
The Zone 9 blog, whose motto is “We blog because we care”, often featured reports critical of the government. It also interviewed Ethiopian dissidents and openly supported members of the opposition.
Following their arrest, the bloggers were denied legal consultation and were not allowed to accept any visits from their family members for three weeks. Friends suspected that during the bloggers’ detention, their email accounts were hacked. Allegations were made that perhaps their passwords were extorted from them through torture during the pre-trial investigation.
The group has been accused by a court under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of plotting violent attacks in Ethiopia. The prosecution supported the terror charges by indicating the bloggers’ use of encryption tools and training in digital security. The Ethiopian government has tried to block encryption methods before, including Tor traffic, a step that has made it harder to use private communication online in Ethiopia.
All arrested bloggers have pleaded not guilty. Five from the group – one was tried in absentia – were released in July 2015, weeks ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. The fate of the remaining four detained bloggers (Befeqadu Hailu, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berahane and Abel Wabela) is yet to be seen.
According to Global Voices, where four members of the Zone 9 collective worked as contributors, their trial has been “botched” and “feels like a never-ending trial”, after it has been pushed back at least 30 times while some remain in jail. After no less than 16 months of court sessions, the group hopes the trial will soon come to a positive end.
Despite its existing multi-party democratic system, critics say Ethiopia is essentially ruled by one party. In May 2015 the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), won 100% of the vote.
Zone 9 sought to change this. The blog’s name, Zone 9, refers to the notorious Kaliti jail in Addis Ababa, which was separated into eight zones. The group has said that the ninth zone represents the outside world, an extension of the prison where people are also denied civil liberties.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, has both promoted free political discourse and clamped down on freedom of expression over the last decade, including shutting down several media outlets.
CPJ report indicates that currently about a dozen journalists are being held in jail in Ethiopia in relation to their work. Furthermore, during the years 2013-2014, more than 40 journalists fled the country due to the government’s crackdown on the media. CPJ research reveals that at least 8 independent publications were shut down by the government in 2014 only.
Zone 9 has been leading a campaign on social media to promote the release of the detained bloggers, using the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers. Hopefully, the campaign will change the restrictive approach of the Ethiopian government towards freedom of expression in the country. The main message of the campaign says it all: “BLOGGING IS NOT A CRIME”.