In April 2014, nine bloggers and journalists were arrested in Ethiopia. Several 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. And four of them were Global Voices authors. In July 2014, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. They have been behind bars ever since, their trial postponed time and again.
This marks the third post in our series – “They Have Names” – that seeks to highlight the individual bloggers who are currently in jail. We wish to humanize them, to tell their particular and peculiar stories. This story comes from Endalk Chala, a founding member of the Zone9 collective who was spared arrest on account of being in the United States, where he is pursuing a PhD.
I met Zelalem Kiberet in 2012. I had come to know him through his blog, where he wrote about curious and inspiring literary pieces, art, politics, history and philosophy.
For me, reading his posts on philosophy and chatting with him occasionally on Facebook was never intimate enough, so I decided to meet him in person. At that time, I always longed to meet my online friends. This is what eventually led to us forming Zone9. That day it was Befeqadu, who is the dynamo of the collective, who organized our meeting. We met in a café called Pizza, at the heart of Addis Ababa.
Befeqadu and I arrived first and then Zelalem joined us. He greeted us warmly. We were sitting at table near the door. He ordered a cup of macchiato and then we had one of our best conversations.
Zelalem was a graduate student at the School of Law of Addis Ababa University, and also taught law at Ambo University. I consider myself very lucky to have worked with Zelalem. Because of his wit, humorous writings and uncompromising digs on religion, his friends tweaked Zelalem’s name into the name of the imminent French writer Zola, whom Zelalem himself read with great enthusiasm. Our Zola’s love for philosophy and art is so visible that he made the banner of his blog the famous painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates”.
Zola’s hit tweets were so illustrious among his peers that I would dare to say that at the time of his arrest, Zola was becoming the most commonly read Ethiopian on Twitter. His humorous and witty tweets established him as a rising literary talent to watch.
Zola can also write longer moving pieces. In one of his blog posts he mocked a subject which mainstream newspapers from inside Ethiopia haven’t dared to acknowledge. In his blog post, titled “How to create your own religion? – An Ethiopian guide”, he wrote a long satire on how state-run outlets broadcast programs in an effort to create a cult personality of the late former president Meles Zenawi. These kinds of his writings put Zola on the radar of the Ethiopian government. Today, after over a year in prison, he is facing trumped-up terrorism charges for being a true intellectual, and one who uses humor to communicate his critiques.
On the banner of his blog, Zola has written ‘Let Freedom Ring’. For as long as he is behind bars, we must carry out this wish on his behalf.