Ethiopia releases jailed journalists and bloggers ahead of Obama’s visit
Charges against five bloggers and journalists held in Ethiopia for more than a year have been dropped, weeks before Barack Obama’s planned visit to the country.
Five others also arrested in April 2014 remain in jail, accused of planning terrorist attacks and collaborating with the US-based opposition group Ginbot 7, labelled a terrorist organisation by Ethiopia.
“The release of these five journalists is a welcome turn of events in Ethiopia, where the number of journalists in prison has steadily increased in recent years,” said Tom Rhodes, east Africa representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“We call on authorities to release the remaining Zone 9 bloggers and all the journalists in jail for their work, and to drop all charges against them,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
The CPJ said that at least 12 other journalists were still incarcerated, most of them facing terrorism charges, making Ethiopia the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after its neighbour Eritrea.
Ethiopia’s jailing of Zone 9 bloggers has a chilling effect on freedom of expression
Ethiopia is an ally of the west in the fight against Islamist extremism in east Africa, receiving millions of dollars in foreign aid, but has a dire record when it comes to human rights and press freedom.
In elections in May, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, in power since the end of a civil war in 1991, and its allies won every seat in parliament.
Obama is due to visit Ethiopia later this month as part of an Africa tour that includes a trip to Kenya, where his father was born. In Ethiopia, Obama is expected to meet the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and address the African Union at its Addis Ababa headquarters.
In the unexpected move on Wednesday, state prosecutors dropped all charges against journalists Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Edom Kassaye and Tesfalem Waldyes, and bloggers Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret.
Four other members of Zone 9, a blogging collective, remain in prison while one other was charged in absentia. The Zone 9 website, proclaiming “we blog because we care”, features mostly social and political commentary, often critical of the government.
The Zone 9 bloggers are a blogging group from Ethiopia, who maintain a blog in Amharic. On 25 and 26 April 2014, the Ethiopian government arrested six members of the Zone 9 bloggers network and three other journalists, who all now face terrorism charges for their writing. The action has sparked protest throughout Ethiopia and online
They were additionally charged with conspiracy for using basic online encryption tools that journalists routinely use to protect their sources. The arrested bloggers and journalists received training in digital security from the Tactical Technology Collective / Front Line Defenders Security in a Box program.
Ethiopia’s constitution explicitly protects freedom of speech and the right to privacy, yet the media is controlled by the government. Although the Internet is harder to censor than broadcast or print, the government has exercised control by jailing those who use the Internet to communicate critically about social or political issues in the country. There is currently only one Internet service provider in Ethiopia, and it is owned by the government. Also in 2012, the country’s only Internet service provider blocked access to the Tor Network, which lets users browse the Internet anonymously and access blocked websites.
On July 8th and 9th, 2015, five of the bloggers were released from prison and all charges against them were dropped. Zelalem Kiberet, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Mahlet Fantahun and Edom Kassaye have been freed. Befeqadu Hailu, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berahane and Abel Wabela remain behind bars.
The group known as Zone 9 got their name from an Ethiopian state prison in Addis Ababa called Kaliti, which has eight zones. The bloggers, who felt that Ethiopia was becoming a bigger prison (Zone 9), called themselves Zone9ers. The group’s motto is “We Blog Because We Care.”
The arrest of these bloggers occurred two days after the Zone 9 bloggers announced that they would be returning to blogging after a silence of nearly six months on their blog page.
Works of the Zone 9 Bloggers
As a collective focusing on human rights, good governance, education, social justice, corruption and non-violence social transformation, the works of the Zone 9 bloggers can be divided into three major types:
Opinion pieces and feature articles focused on rule of law, constitutionality, economic, educational & cultural rights in Ethiopia. In these writings the bloggers have encouraged the citizens of Ethiopia, religious groups, ethnic leaders, opposition political groups and civic society groups to respect the constitution and end impunity in the country. As a part of this effort they have conducted four major online campaigns which were highly focused on demanding the Ethiopian government to respect the constitution.
Documenting the human rights abuses and violations of laws by both state and non-state actors in the country. In these writings they have attempted to report on mistreatment of journalists and citizens by reporting on court hearings, trials, Ethiopian prisons and their experiences of Ethiopia. In their journalistic reports they have written on telecommunications services, education, environment and gender issues.
Bringing the situation of Ethiopia’s political prisoners to public’s attention. These writings were developed through their visits with political prisoners in Ethiopia. The bloggers passed messages from Ethiopian political prisoners to the outside world via their collective blog and individual social media pages.
Arrests and charges
The three journalists and six bloggers who have become known as the Zone 9 bloggers were charged with terrorism on 18 July for having links to an outlawed group, for allegedly planning attacks, and for attending digital security training.
The six members of Zone 9 bloggers and the three journalists who are detained are:
Befeqadu Hailu – a writer, activist, and blogger
Mahlet Fantahun – a data expert in Government’s Ministry of Health
Atnaf Berahane – an IT professional in Addis Ababa city administration, a digital security expert and a blogger.
Natnael Feleke – an employee of the Construction and Business Bank, an economist by profession and a passionate advocate of human rights
Zelalem Kiberet – a lecturer at Ambo University, a lawyer and a blogger
Abel Wabela – an engineer at Ethiopian Airlines, an engineer by profession and blogger
Edom Khassay – a freelancer and an active member of the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association (EEJA)
Tesfalem Waldyes – a freelancer for Addis Standard and many more renowned media outlets
Asmamaw Hailegeorgis – a journalist at Addis Guday newspaper
April 2014: Arrest
On 23 April 2014, the group announced on social media that they would be resuming their activities, following a temporary suspension of their activities due to increased harassment and surveillance by authorities. Two days later, on the 25th of April, 6 members of the group were arrested in what appeared to be a coordinated operation at their offices and in the street on the afternoon of 25 April 2014 by both uniformed and plainclothes policemen. All six were first taken to their homes, where police conducted searches and confiscated private laptops and literature. Freelance journalists Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were also arrested. On 26 April, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis was arrested.
All nine men and women were taken to Maekelawi police station, a Federal detention centre in Addis Ababa, where detainees are widely reported to be routinely subject to coercive torture methods, unlawful interrogation tactics, and poor detention conditions.
April – June 2014: Court hearings
All nine individuals were brought before a judge Criminal Bench at the Arada Federal First Instance Court without the presence of their legal counsel or family members. The court ordered that they should be remanded in custody. Befekadu Hailu, Mahlet Fantahun and Abel Wabela were remanded in custody until 8 May 2014 and the other detainees until 7 May 2014.
Sources claim that the court record shows that the police requested remand for the detainees to obtain further evidence that they were “inciting chaos and violence through different websites pursuant to a plan to destabilize the country using social media by getting financial and intellectual support from a foreign force which calls itself a human rights defender”. The name of the organisation is not specified. Such accusations have no lawful basis under Ethiopia’s domestic criminal law and therefore conflict with Ethiopia’s obligations under the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On 7 May, Atnaf Berhane, Zelalem Kibret, Natnael Feleke, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were brought before an Addis Ababa court. At the brief hearing, police requested more time for their investigation. On 8 May, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, and Mahlet Fantahun were brought before the same court. According to multiple reports, two of the bloggers claimed they were beaten. Police requested more time for their investigation. The next hearing for the three was scheduled to take place on 18 May 2014.
Both hearings were closed to the public, despite many attempts by diplomats and others to attend.
On 17 May, Atnaf Berahane, Zelalem Kibret, Natnael Feleke, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were brought before the same court for the third time in a row without apparent charge. Police requested and were granted an additional 28 days for further investigation into their suspected violations of the 2009 anti-terrorism law, which can carry sentences from 5–10 years. The next hearing was rescheduled to take place on 14 June 2014 at the same court. On 18 May, in a similar manner to the first group of bloggers the second group of bloggers (Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabela and Mahlet Fantahun) were brought before the court for the third time. Police requested an additional 28 days for investigation but the court rejected the extended 28 days and asked the police to bring the detainees for the hearing on 1 June 2014, when they were brought before the court for the fourth time without apparent charge. The same court which rejected the extended 28 days request of the police two weeks earlier granted the police 28 days and the next hearing was scheduled for 29 June.
On 14 June, Atnaf Berahane, Zelalem Kibret, Natnael Feleke, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were brought before the court for the fourth time. Police requested and were granted an additional 28 days for investigation and the next hearing was set to be on 12 July 2014.
July 2014: Charges
On 17 July, prosecutors for Ethiopia’s Lideta High Court formally charged seven Zone 9 bloggers (Soliyana Shimeles (in absentia), Mahlet Fantahun, Befeqadu Hailu, Atinafu Birhane, Natinael Feleke, Zelalem Kibiret, Abel Wabela) and affiliated independent journalists (Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Waldeyes, and Assmamaw H/Giorgis) with having connections to the outlawed political organization Ginbot 7 as well as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), another rebel organization outlawed by the government in Ethiopia. The charges further allege that Natinael Feleke received a sum of 48,000 birr from Ginbot 7 for the purpose of inciting violence. The defendants had no legal representation present when the charges were issued, because their attorneys and families were not given prior notice about the hearing.
☀During the last hearing there was an order to amend the terrorism charges. The reason was that the charges did not specify what acts of terrorism the bloggers and journalists are alleged to have been doing. Despite the order, no amendment had been done to the charges presented today. However, there was a new point added accusing the bloggers for wanting to remove the constitutional order by the use of violence. The bloggers were also repeatedly mentioned together with Ginbot 7, an organization banned as a terrorist network. The bloggers have been openly critical to this group and has denied all association with them. Friends and families of the bloggers were allowed to attend today’s trial. Also, there seems to have been a change for the better regarding visits of the female detainees, Mahlet Fantahun and Edom Kassaye. It is reported that they now are allowed to have visitors more frequently. The trial is adjourned for the 13th time, and the next hearing will take place on December 16, 2014.
July 2015: Release of Five Bloggers
On July 8, 2015, three of the Zone 9 bloggers, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis and Zelalem Kiberet, were freed 439 days after they were sent to jail. All charges against the three men were dropped. Shortly afterwards, Mahlet Fantahun and Edom Kassaye were also freed and their charges dropped on July 9, 2015, along with Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu. Their release precedes a visit by US President Barack Obama to Ethiopia for the first time, which some have speculated created pressure for the journalists to be freed. The fate of the remaining bloggers, Befeqadu Hailu, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berahane and Abel Wabella, remains unclear.
Charge in Zone9 Case
A federal prosecutor on Wednesday presented a ten-page amended charge in the case of Zone9 bloggers and journalists which defense lawyers say is not amended as per the court’s order.
The Federal High Court nineteenth criminal bench on November 12 ordered Federal Prosecutors to amend their charge to include details such as the specific act of terror the defendants are alleged to have committed and the roles and acts of each defendant.
On Wednesday the amended charge was readout in court in the presence of the nine defendants in custody. One member of the group, Soliyana Shimeles, a blogger, is charged in absentia.
The amendment specified two “Terrorist Acts” specified under Article 3 of the Anti-Terrorism proclamation. As per the amendment, the defendants are accused of causing “serious risk to the safety or health of the public or section of the public” and “serious damage to property”.
“There are some changes to the original charge but we do not believe it is amended as ordered by court,” Ameha Mekonnen, lawyer of eight of the defendants, said requesting the court to grant them more days to submit their written comment on the amendment.
The case is adjourned for December 16, 2014 to allow defense lawyers to submit their remark on the amended charge.
The defendants originally faced two charges of ‘conspiracy to commit acts of terror’ and ‘outrage against the constitutional order’. However, judges dropped the later stating that the facts constituting the alleged crime are covered under the terror charge, during the previous hearing.
The nine bloggers and journalists – Abel Wabella, Befeqadu Hailu, Atnaf Berhane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis – remain in custody since April 2014.
Edom and Mahlet, the two female defendants, had complained to court about mistreatment at the Addis Ababa Prison Administration in previous hearings. The two defendants alleged that their right to be visited is limited to a few number of family members and to ten minutes per day.
Speaking outside the court, Ameha said a resolution has been reached with the prison administration regarding visitation rights of suspects.
The prison administration had promised that the defendants can be visited for one hour a day and the only requirement to visit is prior registration, the lawyer has said.
“We hope things will improve. If not, we will bring it back to the attention of the court,” Ameha said.
Advocacy organization across the world have organized campaigns and written articles to call attention to the case of the Zone 9 Bloggers. International organizations like Article 19, Global Voices Advocacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and others have been engaged in advocacy efforts, largely aimed at releasing the Zone 9 Bloggers and other detained journalists in Ethiopia.
Activists started a Twitter campaign in the summer of 2014 using the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers and also began posting pictures on Tumblr displaying support of the jailed bloggers. In May 2014 Global Voices also started a community petition with advocacy organizations from across the globe .
Also in the summer of 2014 the Zone 9 Trial Tracker blog started in an effort to translate relevant case materials into English to help with reporting and advocacy efforts.