Kaliti prison, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, is home to many of Ethiopia’s jailed journalists and dissidents. The prison is divided into eight zones, and the eighth zone is where the political prisoners are kept. In May 2012, a collective of nine dissident bloggers, a group which included students, journalists, economists and lawyers began publishing online under the name Zone 9. The title was a symbol that the ninth zone of imprisonment was Ethiopia itself, a country where free expression and dissent are treated as terrorism.
“We set up the blog to foster public discourse,” says Soliyana Gebremichael, a co-founder of the group, in an interview. “Everything was controlled by the government, so we wanted to offer an independent narration of what was going on in the country.”
The group used the blog to criticize not only Ethiopia’s government and ruling party, but also its often disorganized and inept opposition. It also used social media to campaign for social issues, including freedom of speech.
“Ethiopia is the second-most populous African country, but it doesn’t have any [independent] daily newspaper, so our only option to tell a story was the Internet,” says Endalk Chala, one of the group’s founders, in an interview.
On April 25 and April 26, 2014, three newspaper journalists and six members of Zone 9 were arrested: Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, and Abel Wabela. They were accused of alleged links with Ginbot-7, a banned U.S.-based opposition group. The blog is now maintained by the three other founders, all living in exile.
“They are young professionals with a political conscience who came together primarily to present a case for democratic reform in Ethiopia,” says Davison, the Bloomberg correspondent in Addis Ababa. “From what I know about them, and from what I’ve seen in court, there’s no evidence they were connected to any organizations banned in Ethiopia. Instead those who know them well say they were dedicated to achieving political change via constitutional processes.”
In July 2014, all of the detained bloggers were charged under the anti-terrorism law. After months of postponed hearings and 26 pre-trial adjournments, their trial has been scheduled to begin after Ethiopia’s May 24 elections.
“The trial of the Zone 9 bloggers has been dragging on and on, with the prosecution being unable to create a viable excuse for their detention,” says CPJ’s Rhodes. “The prosecution brought some so-called witnesses to testify against them…[but] These witnesses could not identify the bloggers they were testifying against.”
There is some hope that the current crackdown on journalists and bloggers may end after next month’s poll, he says.
“When I talked to local journalists and other bloggers in Ethiopia, they told me they think the government’s plan was to silence these guys until the elections are over. I hope that’s the case and they are released after the elections,” Rhodes says.