Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle & Ethan Zuckerman
Last April, late on a Friday, an email came over the Global Voices community list with the subject line: “Shocking”. A group of our authors and their fellow bloggers had been arrested earlier that day in Addis Ababa. Six of these men and women had worked with Zone9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability. We quickly learned that they had been arrested because of their work as bloggers.
The Zone9 bloggers were working to foster political debate and discussion in a country where most media outlets fall under heavy control by government authorities. They wanted to help fellow citizens better understand their rights, as guaranteed by the constitution. They wanted more Ethiopians to have some say in how their country is run.
It’s not easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. As Africa's second most populous country, Ethiopia is the beneficiary of enormous flows of foreign military and humanitarian aid, largely intended to bolster and maintain the nation as a security stronghold in the Horn of Africa, where levels of ethnic tension, corruption and crime are high. The government faces threats from armed militant groups in the country’s northern region and in neighboring Somalia, and it has ample support from Western governments, including the US, to preserve stability in the region. But fear about this precarious situation has bled into critical areas of public life, leaving little room for civil society activity and democratic debate. In recent years, the government has developed a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist.
Consider journalist Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18-year prison sentence.
In 2013, fearful that they might suffer the same fate, the Zone9ers let their blog go dark for over a year. But last spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25, 2014, the government responded by arresting six members of the blogging team, along with three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.
Though they have yet to be brought to trial, the bloggers have been charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. This provides a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that the bloggers received training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a digital security toolkit intended to help human rights groups protect themselves from surveillance, widely available online. The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest by a paranoid government.
We are humbled by the degree to which these bloggers have remained strong, determined, and vocal since their imprisonment. In August of 2014, Befeqadu Hailu, a founding member of Zone9 and Global Voices author, wrote a detailed account of his experiences behind bars, a text that was smuggled out of the prison and published on our site. His words have left our community both inspired and haunted ever since. “No matter what,” he wrote, “boundaries exist in this country. People who write about Ethiopia’s political reality will face the threat of incarceration as long as they live here.”
Read: Journal from an Ethiopian Prison: Testimony of Befeqadu Hailu
More recently, friends were able to smuggle out a letter from Natnael Feleke, a founding member of the Zone9 blogging collective who studied economics before his arrest. Natnael's letter is addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry. Natnael spoke with Kerry at a public event at Addis Ababa University in 2013, a meeting that has now become part of the case against him. In the letter, Natnael asks the US government to reconsider its support for the Ethiopian government. He writes:
…[the amount of] time I will be spending in prison is not the most pressing issue on my mind right now. Rather, I am worried about the amount of additional sacrifice required until the international community, specifically your government, will assume a firm pragmatic stance in demanding fundamental progress in the democratization process of the country against the billions of dollars pouring the regime's way.
I don't want you to get me wrong here. It is not that I don't appreciate the earnest assistance being forwarded to the development process in my country. It is just that I strongly believe effective monitoring of such assistance can only be employed where there is a government accountable to its people. It is ironic that the world's top recipient of development assistance is without effective monitoring and accountability.
In his book the Audacity of Hope, President Obama states that the true test of what we really value is where we invest the time, energy and money that we have. I understand the difficulty you face in striking a balance between maintaining security and stability and promoting democratization in your foreign policy. But sustainable stability can only be achieved through a democratically elected government and a state institution trusted by the people. As US national interests are built on core values of liberty and democracy, I have hope and confidence that you will adopt a new stance that forges a clearer relationship between any form of assistance and the democratization process.
The letter does not only make a political argument. Natnael also talks about his own experience in prison, describing torture, poor conditions, and the criminal investigation that the bloggers have undergone, which he calls “ridiculous.”
Read: A Letter to John Kerry from Kilinto Prison, Ethiopia
It is eery the degree to which the bloggers seemed to anticipate their current fate. The Zone9ers in fact take their name from Kality, a prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where Eskinder Nega has lived since 2011. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human rights activists and dissidents. Endalk, one of the three Zone9ers who remains free today, explained that when the group formed, “we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.”
The Zone9 bloggers are expected to face trial late this spring. If convicted, they will find themselves in the company of at least eighteen other journalists who have suffered the same fate.