By Mayukh Sen
To some Ethiopian citizens, there is a Ninth Zone – a Zone dedicated to the “proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live”. In 2012, a group of passionate Ethiopian bloggers launched Zone Nine, a blogging collective that, in its own words, “blogs because it cares”. Zone Nine prides itself on providing a counter to the opinions, voices, and attitudes that dominate Ethiopia’s press.
In April 2014, six of Zone Nine’s bloggers – along with three print journalists suspected of associating with the group – were arrested on the grounds that they were covertly receiving money from foreign human rights organizations to incite violence through social media.
63 days have passed since their detention. The bloggers have appeared in court continually over the past few months while being detained in Addis Ababa’s Maekelawi detention center. No formal charges have been leveled against them as of yet. That said, activists fear that these bloggers and journalists will suffer the same fate that befell Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, two journalists imprisoned and charged with terrorism (a crime that carries heavy fines and a lengthy prison term) in 2011.
The collective has blogged about numerous political issues affecting the Ethiopian populace, hoping to bolster civic discourse in service of social change. In the wake of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death, for example, Zone Nine penned scathing critiques of Zenawi’s proclaimed economic development achievements, casting doubt on his legacies. They also partnered with Global Voices to launch Global Voices in Amharic in 2012, hoping to make international news accessible to local readers.
Since its inception, Zone Nine has amassed a passionate readership within the country. According to its own bloggers, Zone Nine’s stories have occasionally been picked up by wider-known publications within the country, signaling wider support for the messages it has broadcasted. Outside of Ethiopia, the detention of the Zone Nine bloggers has ignited public furor. Global Voices launched a #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtagging campaign and organized a FreeZone9Bloggers Tweetathon on May 14, while UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay criticized Ethiopia’s increasing frequency of charges against journalists on the grounds of terrorism.
– gerardvanmourik @endalk2006 @Eshete #zone9bloggers will overcome someday! #change will visit #ethiopia and no one will be able to stop her— twsgy™ (@twsgy) June 10, 2014
@natnaelteklu this sums up why #Zone9Bloggers or any concerned citizen is jailed in #Ethiopia, #FreeZone9Bloggers pic.twitter.com/wO11vcRtzd— Fitsum Tilahun (@fitse_t) June 10, 2014
Slowly losing track of # of days #Zone9Bloggers jailed, but not losing track of them. 1 is a numerical issue, the other is a human issue.— Maaza Mengiste (@MaazaMengiste) June 7, 2014
The arrests arrive in the context of what some activists fear is a growingly repressive media milieu in Ethiopia. For years, journalists – on and offline – have been susceptible to governmental terrorism charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has claimed that more journalists have fled Ethiopia since May 2013 than in anywhere else in the world. An ambiguously-worded anti-terrorism law, mobilized in 2009, gave the Ethiopian government the power to act against any form of political dissent so long as it is deemed “supportive of armed opposition activity”. The passage of this law has led to the arrest and detention of scores of journalists.
Recently, this fight against journalists has moved online, with Ethiopian governmental officials moving to counteract online criticism of their efforts by training blogging recruits to attack any online criticism of the administration (a practice known as astroturfing). The government has trained over 230 bloggers since May, teaching them how to post comments that sing the praises of the regime on social media—a particularly interesting move, given that less than 2% of Ethiopia’s population has Internet access.