As Violence Escalates in Ethiopia, Zone9 and Other Prominent Bloggers Face New Legal Threats

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Seyoum Teshome, a prominent member of the embattled community of Ethiopian online writers was arrested last Friday. He is being held in a Weliso town jail cell and he was reportedly brought to the court on Tuesday but remained remanded into police custody for 10 days pending further investigation according to reports.

This comes on the heels of an appeal in the high-profile case of the Zone9 bloggers. Members of the Addis Ababa-based blogging collective, six of whom are Global Voices contributors, were jailed for more than a year on terrorism charges. Although they were released (in two groups) in July and October of 2015, they will soon once again face trial as public prosecutors have appealed their acquittal. They return to court on October 21, 2016.

A few weeks prior to his arrest, Seyoum Teshome published an open letter on the online platform EthioThinkTank, addressing Ethiopian prime minister Desalegn Hailemariam. He wrote:

I am a teacher at Ambo University. In my spare time I write analytical pieces on various issues. Nine months ago, when I started writing, I wrote about massive protests that I saw in the town where I live, Weliso. Since then, I have published more than fifty articles on a website. I am writing this because I wanted the public and the government to know that the purpose of my writing is just to inform the public and suggest solutions. I also wanted to let everybody know the occasion that made me start to write.

Seyoum writes prolifically about Ethiopia’s ongoing protests in the Oromo region. He has been writing and commenting on online platforms including the pro-regime websites such as Horn Affairs, and made national headlines when he gave an interview about the Oromo protests to a New York Times reporter. The story he commented for was published with the catchy headline: ‘A Generation is Protesting’ in Ethiopia, Long a U.S. Ally

Seyoum's arrest and the renewed case against the Zone9 bloggers come at a critical moment in the ongoing protest movement in the Oromo region. Demonstrations have taken place with regular frequency in Oromia since November 2015, with protesters demanding greater self-rule, freedom and respect for the ethnic identity of the Oromo people, who have experienced systematic marginalization and persecution over the last quarter century. Authorities have used deadly force against the protesters on more than one occasion. On October 2 alone, 52 people were killed. The diaspora-based human rights group 7 kilo has reported a death toll of nearly 600 people.

Over the past several years, numerous Ethiopians who write on online platforms have been arrested, prosecuted, or forced into exile. Getachew Shiferaw, who launched his journalism career by writing on online platforms was arrested and prosecuted on terrorism charges in December 2015. Zelalem Workagegnhu was found guilty of terrorism charges and he is serving his long term prison sentences. Eskinder Nega has suffered a similar fate, this past September will mark the fifth year of his 18-year prison sentence.

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