Zone9 Bloggers Are Not Alone: More Ethiopian Netizens Face Terrorism Charges

Zelalem, Yonatan, Bahiru and Abraham. Photo used with permission from debirhan.com

Alongside the now-famous case of the Zone9 bloggers, there are so many detained Ethiopian bloggers, online activists and politicians, whose names are not yet on the map.

Last year on July 8, 2014, Ethiopia detained a number of local opposition leaders, bloggers, online activists and concerned citizens. Some were released after four months of interrogation. However, ten were charged on October 31, 2014 under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation with having links to diaspora-based Ethiopian opposition groups such as Ginbot 7, applying to attend an online security training, and engaging in online activism. Three of the 10 defendants are not members of any political party but ordinary citizens who were arrested for applying to attend a course. These are Zelalem Workagenegu, Yonatan Wolde and  Bahiru Degu.

The controversial Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was adopted in July 2009. Ethiopian officials tend to defend the law by arguing that its controversial provisions were copied from the existing laws of countries such as the United Kingdom. Article 6 of the Proclamation, which has been used to curtail freedom of expression, provides that:

[w]hosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism [is subject to between 10 and 20 years in prison].

Zelalem, the first defendant, is a human rights activist who blogs at DeBirhan. Yonatan and Bahiru, who are best described as concerned citizens, had applied along with Zelalem for a social media and Internet security training that was brought to their knowledge by a US-based Ethiopian journalist. After an email from the Ethiopian journalist in the US was found in their possession, these young men were also arrested and later charged with applying for “a terror training” when in fact the training was about Internet safety and security.

Ethiopian court last month acquitted Abraham Solomon, detained for having connections with the first defendant Zelalem, along with four other opposition politicians namely Abraha Desta, an official of the opposition Arena Tigray Party and social media activist, Yeshiwas Assefa, council member of the Blue (Semayawi) Party, Daniel Shibeshi, official of the now defunct Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party and Habtamu Ayalew, former Public Relations Head of the defunct UDJ. However, until today they have not been released because the Prosecutor has reportedly appealed the decision.

An article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows the increasing attempts of silencing online activists and netizens in Ethiopia. The organisation called Ethiopia to:

Immediately free all journalists in prison, including the remaining Zone 9 bloggers, and relieve them of all charges for the “crime” of reporting the news.
End the prosecution of individuals for pursuing security training and using encryption technologies, and free Zelalem Workagegnehu, Yonatan Wolde, Abraham Solomon, and Bahiru Degu.

Cease and desist from using invasive surveillance technologies like FinFisher and Hacking Team’s Remote Control System to spy” on Ethiopian journalists, Diaspora, and opposition groups.

While Zone9 remains among Ethiopia's best-known case of its kind, stories like that of Zelalem demonstrate that the issues these bloggers face extend far beyond a few individuals. The next court appearance of Zelalem, Yonatan and Bahiru is between November 7-9, 2015.

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