The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has awarded its International Press Freedom Award to six Ethiopian bloggers who served more than a year in Ethiopia’s notorious prisons.
Until the Zone 9 bloggers suddenly appeared on the Addis Ababa web scene under the motto "We Blog Because We Care" in May 2012, the local blogosphere was far from familiar for most Ethiopians. Former Ambo University lecturer and member of the group, Zelalem Kibret, recalls that none of the nine social media enthusiasts set out to engage in political blogging at first but rather entered the circuit to “connect with like-minded people.”
One Sunday the group visited imprisoned journalist Re'eyot Alemu. She had been detained on charges of terrorism and was being held in the so-called Zone 8 female section of the notorious Kaliti prison outside the capital Addis Ababa. Soliyana Shimeles, co-founder of what was later to become the Zone 9 group, recalls how in the middle of their discussion about prison conditions Re'eyot told them that "the prisoners refer to the space outside the prison compound as Zone 9, implying that we Ethiopians are all prisoners of some kind." Thus the name "Zone 9" was born for the group of youngsters, who, as Soliyana Shimeles puts it, "were obsessed with freedom and justice."
In 2013 thousands of opposition activists in Addis Ababa called for reforms and the release of political prisoners
In the Ninth Zone
The group motto "We Blog Because We Care" emphasizes issues of accountability, transparency and respect for the constitution of a government which has a proven track record of clamping down on popular dissent, as documented by human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. No sooner had the first blog entries appeared than authorities swiftly moved to black out the social media initiative. The group then used alternative online tools to disseminate articles exposing corruption and poor governance practices. "The combined effort of nine like-minded individuals was the driving force for what we did," Zelalem remembers. He told DW's Amharic service that the group "focused on constitutional rights and issues related to freedom of expression. That helps us to reach more online citizens." Soliyana said the social media campaign ‘'Ethiopian Dream"' reached around "250,000 online participants" in a country of 90 million with limited access to the Internet and a state monopoly on telecommunication.
From there, however, things went downhill. In April 2014, six members of the Zone 9 group - Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret and Befekadu Hailu -were detained along with journalists Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye and Asmamaw Hailegeorgis. Soliyana, who was abroad at the time, said the move did not come unexpectedly. The bloggers were accused of terrorism, inciting violence and of having links to outlawed political groups. What followed was an ordeal that saw their trials adjourned several times before prosecutors finally dropped charges against all of them except for Befkadu who was discharged on bail on October 21, 2015.
'We are still prisoners'
On November 17, Zelalem was invited by the press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to accept on behalf of the entire group a press freedom award in the citizen-journalist category. But according to a press statement "Zelalem Kibret was denied exit [from Ethiopia] and he had his passport confiscated."
"We were very shocked to hear that," said Clea Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk in Paris. "We are not informed that there is any legal ground [for the travel ban], and if there is any legal ground, it is strange that the authorities who are now holding the passport failed to provide the piece of paper to explain why he was banned from travelling."
Although the court has dropped the terrorism-related charges, some of the members are fighting to get their former jobs back. The group is also in a state of fear that officials' "unconstitutional opinions" might "infringe" on the court's pronouncement of their guilt or innocence.
Sue Valentine, CPJ's Africa program coordinator, told DW's Amharic service that the Zone 9 bloggers were chosen for the award in recognition of their courageous work to express their ideas and their attempt to engage in political and social discussion in Ethiopia. However, none of the group members was able to attend the award ceremony in the US. The award "is a reflection of the sad and depressing reality" of press freedom and freedom of expression in Ethiopia, says Soliyana Shimeles. According to Befekadu Hailu, the trial against the group shows that there is no press freedom or freedom of expression in Ethiopia. "If there were, we would not have been sent to jail." After experiencing "torture, heavy physical exercise and long interrogations" Befekadu believes blogging is a responsibility on their shoulders for the betterment of the country.