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Ethiopia's Zone 9 Bloggers Promoting Press Freedom

  • VOA Staff

In April 2014, Ethiopian authorities arrested six bloggers affiliated with the Zone 9 collective. The bloggers -Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu - were charged with terrorism.

The Zone 9 blogging collective was formed in May 2012 in response to the evisceration of the independent press and the narrowing of space for free expression. The name, “Zone 9,” is derived from the zones in Kality Prison, the main jail where Ethiopia's political prisoners, including several journalists, are held.

While Kality Prison is organized into eight different zones, the bloggers refer to the entire country as “Zone 9” because of Ethiopia’s lack of democratic freedoms, one of the bloggers told CPJ.

The collective is made up of nine bloggers--the six named above, and Soleyana S Gebremichael, Endalk Chala, and Jomanex Kasaye, all of whom are in exile. Soleyana has been charged in absentia.

In July 2015, weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country, Ethiopian authorities relased Mahlet and Zelalem.

The Zone 9 bloggers were arrested along with three other journalists--editor Asmamaw Hailegeorgis and freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, who were later released. The initial charges against the group included working with international human rights organizations and taking part in email encryption and digital security training. The group was subsequently charged with terrorism.

Since 2009, when Ethiopia’s anti-terror law was implemented, the government has used the sweeping legislation to imprison more than a dozen critical journalists, according to CPJ research. In 2012, blogger Esinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison and Woubshet Taye to 14 years, both on terrorism charges. CPJ’s 2014 prison census found that Ethiopia was the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world, with at least 17 journalists behind bars. Ethiopia also ranked fourth on CPJ's 2015 list of the10 Most Censured Countries.

With the motto "We Blog Because We Care," the Zone 9 collective has voiced concerns over domestic issues, including political repression, corruption, and social injustice. The collective’s posts were frequently blocked inside Ethiopia, but gained a following with Ethiopians in the diaspora, according to local reports. Their posts on Facebook solicited some 12,000 responses a week, reaching 200,000 during a four-part “campaign” they ran on Facebook.

By awarding the Zone 9 bloggers with its International Press Freedom Award, CPJ recognizes the important role that bloggers play in environments where traditional media are weak or have been all but shuttered by financial hardship and direct or indirect state attacks.

The text of the Zone 9 Bloggers acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.

Thank you!

Our story begins in 2012. We love telling stories so we logged onto the Internet to tell stories ... and learn from stories told by other people. We have opinions, so we started to blog.

The motto of the nine bloggers was “We blog, because we care.” We trusted the laws of our land, but ended up in jail and in exile. That is briefly the story of the Zone 9 bloggers.

How did we get the name Zone 9? It was on one bright Sunday in May 2012 we heard the word Zone 9. That day, a few of us went to visit Reeyot Alemu, a journalist who was jailed in one of the biggest prisons of Ethiopia, Kality.Reeyot is here with us this evening.

Reeyot's cellmate, who was serving a long sentence on fake charges of overthrowing the government, referred to us as “the people of Zone 9”.

We asked why she used this strange name. She said the Ethiopian government has divided the Kality prison into eight different zones. When she referred to us as people from Zone 9, she meant metaphorically that we are also in prison, the nation of Ethiopia. That day we named our blogging collective Zone 9. We believe our stories are stories from prison.

For us, telling stories and blogging help us to understand our country better. We believe story telling involves exercising democracy and learning responsibility. In a country where journalism is pushed aside and equated with terrorism, in a country where holding a different opinion is a crime, in a country where a ruling party “won” all the parliamentary seats and controls life on an Orwellian scale, blogging is the only possible way out to truth. That was what we did.

We were not able to keep blogging for more than two years. Some of us were exiled...., and in April 2014...others of us were jailed for what we love to do, writing. We were tortured and threatened with death. We were labeled as terrorists for campaigning for respect for citizens’ right to freedom of expression.

Our bitter-sweet story has much to tell about the present day Ethiopia, in which silence is considered as the beginning of being an Ethiopian.

They say, “In silence there is peace.” But, in silence there is fear too. That is the Ethiopian reality.

Finally, this prize means a lot to everyone who paid and is paying a price for freedom of expression.

Though it is a reflection of the sad and depressing reality, this solidarity lightens hope and strengthens endurance for the many more who are in prison and in exile.

Yes, we blog, because we care.