Updated on July 9 at 20:00 GMT
Three writers walked free in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 8 after spending 439 days behind bars on terrorism charges. Journalists Tesfalem Waldyes and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis and university philosophy professor Zelalem Kiberet, also a Global Voices translator, were arrested last April along with six other bloggers and journalists, most of whom worked with Ethiopia’s Zone9 blogging collective. All charges against the three men have been dropped.
The same day Radio FANA, a media outlet known to support the ruling party, reported that authorities had also dropped charges against bloggers Mahlet Fantahun and Edom Kassaye. Both women were released on July 9.
Four of the bloggers remain behind bars and continue to face charges in a trial that has only barely begun in earnest. This group includes Befeqadu Hailu, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berahane and Abel Wabella. All four are Global Voices authors and translators.
Tesfalem told the Addis Standard that this morning he heard his name called over the loudspeaker system of Kilinto Prison, where the writers have been held for over a year. A prison official called the names of Zelalem and Asmamaw, stating that all charges against them had been dropped. They were released just hours later.
The #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag lit up on Twitter shortly after the news was confirmed by friends who greeted the newly freed men at Kilinto Prison. Blena Sahilu, a close friend of the group, tweeted as she reunited with Tesfalem, her joy and disbelief palpable in her messages:
I'm shaking with joy and disbelief!!! I'm five minutes away from Tesfalem. I'm going to see him noww Is this real??? 😀😀😀 — Blena (@BlenaSahilu) July 8, 2015
Numerous supporters posted photos of an emotional reunion between Zelalem and his girlfriend:
Zola & Siti ❤️❤️❤️ pic.twitter.com/Y2j6TtZITJ — Blena (@BlenaSahilu) July 8, 2015
Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, who has been an active supporter of the #FreeZone9Bloggers campaign, applauded the efforts of all those who have called attention to the case:
Credit also goes to them for rallying voices, fund drives, writing articles, keeping them in our minds & hearts #Ethiopia #FreeZone9Blogers
— Maaza Mengiste (@MaazaMengiste) July 8, 2015
Prior to the 2014 arrests, Zone9 covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and sought human rights and government accountability. Its contributors were known for their critical stance on government policies and practices and they had faced various threats before their arrests last year, but had not faced direct legal challenges until April of 2014. After spending many weeks behind bars with only informal accusations of inciting social unrest via online means, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Alongside an outpouring of joy and disbelief at the news of the bloggers’ release, many on social media urged supporters to take caution in their celebration. On Facebook, Simegnish Yekoye Or Lily wrote:
As much as we are happy and celebrating the release of our colleagues and friends Tesfalem, Asmamaw and Zelalem, and wait for release of Edom and Mahlet tomorrow … we still need to push for the charges against the remaining bloggers Befekadu, Abel, Atinaf and Nati to be dropped. They are only bloggers and not terrorists.
What caused the sudden change of course by Ethiopian authorities? Supporters including Global Voices and large media freedom organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists have pressed for the bloggers’ freedom for many months, to no avail. One supporter surmised that the release may have been prompted by an upcoming visit to Ethiopia by Barack Obama:
Lets play smart ass. Because obama is coming lets free some of #FreeZone9Bloggers — Dawit2.9 (@DawitV2_8) July 8, 2015
Twitter user Abiye Megenta suggested that Obama should use the visit to pressure Ethiopian authorities to release the remaining bloggers:
Ethiopian government releases its high profile political prisoners ahead of Obama's trip. He should press them to release all pol prisoners. — Abiye T. Megenta (@abiyetk) July 8, 2015
Across the globe, the bloggers’ supporters pledged to continue their efforts until all journalists and bloggers in Ethiopia are free:
We will keep fighting until all of imprisoned Zone 9 Bloggers and other journalists are freed. #FreeZone9Bloggers #FreeEskender #FreeReyot — Fasiledes (@Fasiledesfasil) July 8, 2015
ናኖ ናኖ ነዬ ናኖ ናኖ ነይ ኦብዬ ኦባማ ኦቦሌሳ ሁሌ ነይ ነይ we will keep on tantrumin out here until they set all prisoners out there in #Ethiopia free
— Ethiopian Press (@abenezer_a) July 8, 2015
And Amanuel Tesfaye reminded us that the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag will remain strong until that day comes.
FYI, the hash #FreeZone9Bloggers is still in play, until all are out. Don't forget to use it while tweeting about today's releases. — Amanuel Tesfaye (@ethio_style) July 8, 2015