Bloggers behind bars: Interview with Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers

7 mins read
Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers, with Endalkachew Chala (far left) and Soleyana Gebremichale (second left)
Credit: Endalkachew Chala

Ismail Einashe speaks to members of Ethiopian blogging group Zone 9, whose writers were accused by the government of terrorism and jailed

I WANTED TO BREAK down the fear. I wanted an independent media in Ethiopia,” said Endalkachew Chala, explaining why he co-founded the country’s most well-known bloggers’ collective, Zone 9.
The collective was targeted in a massive clampdown in 2014 when six of its members were jailed along with three other journalists.
Chala told Index what happened from his new home in Oregon, where he is now studying for a PhD. He was already in the USA when his colleagues were arrested. After being held for months without charge, the writers were eventually charged with terrorism, a move which prompted an international outcry.
Five were released in July 2015, just ahead of a visit to the country by US president Barack Obama. The remaining four (plus another charged in absentia) were acquitted of terror charges in October, although one continued to be held for inciting violence and was later bailed.
Chala said the bloggers’ acquittal, though long awaited, was faster than he expected. He believes the Ethiopian government was attempting to “give an impression [that the] Ethiopian judiciary is impartial and independent”.
The international interest in the bloggers’ plight also piled pressure on the Ethiopian government. “When The Guardian covers you, and when the BBC covers [you], then local news does not cover you, it’s weird,” he said.
Founded in May 2012, Zone 9 took its name from Ethiopia’s prisons, which are organised into eight zones, with Zone 8 usually used for journalists and dissidents. “Ethiopia is Zone 9,” said Chala. “Ethiopia is a big prison.” The blog was written in Amharic, and covered political and social issues. It highlighted the stories of jailed journalists, which are rarely heard in a country that has no free press. Crucially, the collective existed only online; in Ethiopia, discussing such things offline comes with high risks.
Ethiopia has Africa’s fastest growing economy. But it is also one of the most closed-off countries on the continent. On the Reporters Sans Frontières World Press Freedom Index 2015, it ranks 142 out of 180 countries. And although Ethiopia has released the bloggers, it still remains one of the worst abusers of press freedom, often using “security threats”, as a means to silence dissent and stifle political opposition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists more than 40 journalists fled into exile from Ethiopia between 2013 and 2014.
One of those is Soleyana Gebremichale, another Zone 9 blogger, who, like Chala, has now moved to the USA. She was charged in absentia, and acquitted in October. Now based in Washington DC, she runs The Ethiopia Human Rights Project, which she said is about giving an “Ethiopian voice” to the human rights struggle. She also said the project serves to counter Ethiopian government propaganda which condemns human rights organisations for having a “Western agenda”.
Of her involvement with Zone 9, she said: “Most of us as youths were frustrated, we had nothing to read. Newspapers like the Addis Neger, a critical paper of the government, were shut down.”
Gebremichale told Index that after the Arab Spring started in 2010, the authorities got fearful of internal dissent. “That’s when the authorities understood the power of the internet. They realised the internet can connect like-minded people,” she said. Ethiopia’s notorious legislation the charities and societies proclamation of 2009 restricted civil society groups and, in effect, shut down any opposition. “There are no civil society organisations in Ethiopia,” said Gebremichale. “[At that time] all spaces were closed. The internet was the only way out.”
Yet internet access is only available to a few. Ethiopia has one of the lowest mobile phone and internet penetrations in Africa. “Less than 2% have access online despite huge population growth, and there’s only one internet provider,” Chala said. The Ethiopian state has a total monopoly on communications and Ethio-Telecom is the only provider.
“The internet has democratised storytelling,” he added. But the state has retaliated. Chala said that Zone 9 members had their phones tapped and were followed. Access to the Zone 9 blog was blocked.
It had been hoped that 2012 would have been a turning point. After the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that year, many hoped Ethiopia might open up, but his successor Hailemariam Desalegn continues to rule with an iron fist. In the May 2015 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party and its allies won 100% of seats. There is not one opposition MP.
As for the jailed bloggers, Chala said they want to get back to their lives, and one wants to write a book: “You have to remember that these guys were uprooted from their jobs because of this case and they want to get their jobs back.” Chala and Gebremichale continue to work from afar. “I have become stateless. My price is exile. I just want to go home,” said Chala. Both will continue to work to prise open Ethiopia’s press. “The key is us,” Gebremichale said. “The change is in our hands”.

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