By: IPI Contributor Michael Kudlak
VIENNA, Feb 2, 2016 – Ethiopian authorities should cease an ongoing campaign of persecution targeting journalists and bloggers from the Zone 9 collective and allow them to travel and report freely, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
Despite a federal high court’s decision to drop widely criticised charges of terrorism against them last year, members of the group continue to face arbitrary travel bans and other actions against them that hinder their professional activity.
“Members of the Zone 9 collective face a pending appeal of the decision to drop charges against them, ongoing administrative harassment, threatening messages and constant surveillance, all of which appear designed to keep them in a state of fear where re-arrest is imminent,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “In addition to silencing the collective, these actions seem intended to muzzle the critical voice of Ethiopia’s independent journalists in general.
“We call, again, on authorities to respect constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of information and to reform the country’s repressive anti-terrorism law, and we urge them to stop the harassment of members of the Zone 9 collective and allow them to do their job as journalists.”
Formed in May 2012, the Zone 9 blogging collective is, by nature, provocative. Described by one of its co-founders as “dedicated to challenging corruption, upholding human rights and promoting government accountability”, the group’s name is a play on the eight zones in Kality Prison, where most of Ethiopia’s political prisoners are held. “Zone 9” refers to the rest of the country.
In April 2014, Ethiopian authorities arrested six of the group’s bloggers – Abel Wabela, Atenaf Berahene, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Zelalem Kebret and Befeqadu Hailu – and three independent journalists, editor Asmamaw Haile Giorigis and freelancers Tesfalem Weldyes and Edom Kassaye, as a result of their contact with foreign human rights groups and political opposition parties.
The bloggers and journalists were held on charges of terrorism and inciting violence under Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law. In addition, they were charged with conspiracy for using basic online encryption tools routinely used by journalists in their work.
Between April 2014 and September 2015, the Zone 9 bloggers’ trial was adjourned some 30 times, and the bloggers spent nine weeks in detention before finally being charged under the country’s controversial anti-terrorism law. Although the last member of the Zone 9 blogger collective was released in October 2015, and all charges of terrorism against them were dropped by a federal high court following international pressure, harassment of the group continues.
An appeal by the state prosecutor is pending and five members of the group – Wabela, Berahene, Feleke and Hailu, as well as Soliyana Shemiles, against whom the hearing will proceed in absentia – are currently due to appear in court on Friday.
Meanwhile, Kassaye, who was set to travel to the United States on Dec. 11 to attend the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism on a five-month scholarship, remains unable to leave Ethiopia following an immigration officer’s seizure of her passport. Almost two months later, her passport has still not been returned and, despite numerous queries, she has received no reason for the confiscation. After explaining to the officials that she had been offered a scholarship, Kassaye was, at one point, simply told that she should “apply again next year”.
Martha Steffens, a member of IPI’s Executive Board and the SABEW Chair in Business and Financial Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism, said that IPI’s North American Committee “deeply regrets that Ms. Kassaye was barred from leaving her home country and attending the Missouri School of Journalism as a visiting international scholar, thereby denying her both the human right to travel and to receive education”.
Steffens added: “The school plays host to more than a dozen visiting international scholars every year who learn state of the art journalism skills and creating more understanding about the workings of a free press. We hope that Ms. Kassaye’s passport will be returned to her, so she can travel to the U.S. and complete her studies.”
Kassaye was also set to be a speaker at IPI’s World Congress in Doha, Qatar from March 19 to 21. However, she will not be able to attend the event as long as the current, de facto travel ban against her remains in place.
Other members of the group have experienced similar fates. Kebret was unable to travel to France to receive an award from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), after his passport was seized by immigration officers, while Tesfalem Weldyes could not pursue a six-month fellowship in Germany after his passport was also taken from him.
Zone 9 members are constantly subject to widespread surveillance by the government security forces and have also received threatening messages to refrain from their work as journalists or bloggers.
Ethiopia remains one of the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with at least 10 currently serving long prison sentences or facing charges under the anti-terrorism law, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on Dec. 1, 2015 as part of an annual survey it conducts. Dozens more journalists have fled into exile.
IPI and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) carried out a joint fact-finding mission to Ethiopia in November 2013 to discuss the country’s 2009 anti-terrorism law and the challenges faced by Ethiopian journalists. Unfortunately, despite widespread international calls for reform, the state of press freedom in Ethiopia has seen few subsequent improvements.