The arrest of nine bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia just days before World Press Freedom Day on 3 May once again highlights PEN International’s concerns for freedom of expression in the country. PEN recalls with dismay that last year Ethiopia’s Supreme Court marked World Press Freedom Day by upholding journalist Eskinder Nega’s 18-year prison sentence on highly dubious terrorism related charges; he and at least four other journalists remain in prison in Ethiopia on similar charges.
Ahead of World Press Freedom Day and the second Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the UN on 6 May where the country’s human rights record will be reviewed, PEN reiterates its calls on the Ethiopian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all independent journalists, bloggers and activists held for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of opinion, expression and association. It also calls on the authorities to repeal or amend its anti-terrorism and media laws, which are frequently used to harass journalists and curb free expression in the country.
PEN calls on the Ethiopian authorities to:
- Immediately and unconditionally release all independent journalists, bloggers and activists detained and imprisoned for peacefully exercising their fundamental right to freedom of opinion, expression and association protected under both the Ethiopian Constitution (Articles 27 and 31) and international human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is a party, including the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
- Repeal or amend the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation so that they comply with Ethiopia’s obligations under international law regarding the freedom of opinion, expression and association
- Ensure that all detained or imprisoned journalists and bloggers are granted access to visitors, including legal counsel, and medical treatment as enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution (Article 21.2).
Please send appeals reiterating PEN’s calls (listed above) to:
Office of the Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1031
Fax: +251 11 551 1244
Email via Ministry of Justice: firstname.lastname@example.org
Message via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/PM-HaileMariam-Desalegn/130218980457764
Salutation: Dear Prime Minister
Please also send a copy of your appeal to your nearest Ethiopian diplomatic representative (the contact details for Ethiopian embassies abroad are listed here: http://www.mfa.gov.et/abouttheministry.php?pg=6#vdo and http://embassy.goabroad.com/embassies-of/ethiopia).
Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 4 June 2014
On 25 April 2014, six Zone 9 bloggers – Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Befeqadu Hailu, Zelalem Kiberet and Abel Wabela – and freelance journalist Tesfalem Weldeyes were detained in what appear to be a series of coordinated arrests. The following day, journalists Asmamaw Haile Gorgis and Edom Kassaye were also arrested. The nine were reportedly brought before a court without legal representation on 27 April and have been detained incommunicado in Maekelawi detention centre since their arrest. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, which documented serious human rights abuses in Maekelawi, detainees are seldom granted access to legal counsel or their relatives during the initial investigation phase. Weldeyes, Haile Gorgis and Kiberet are reportedly next due in court on 7 May, while the remaining six will appear in court on 8 May.
Two days prior to the bloggers’ arrest, Zone 9 – an independent collective of bloggers who campaign against political repression and human rights abuses in Ethiopia – announced the resumption of operations after a hiatus of several months due to security concerns. The day before his arrest, Feleke was reportedly ordered to hand over the contact details of all Zone 9 contributors, which he refused to do. The bloggers stand accused of working with foreign human rights organisations and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media. As such, PEN is concerned that their arrest is part of the authorities’ continuing attempts to curtail freedom of expression in the country.
It is thought that Weldeyes (a freelance journalist writing for the weekly English Fortune and the monthly Addis Standard), Haile Gorgis (editor of the monthly Amharic-language Addis Guday magazine) and Kassaye (a former journalist for the state-owned daily newspaper Addis Zemen and a member of the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association) were arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with Zone 9. In the weeks prior to her arrest, Kassaye was reportedly subject to surveillance and interrogation over her connection to and the activities of Zone 9, including their relationship with foreign human rights organisations.
Zone 9, whose motto is “We Blog Because We Care,” formed in May 2012 in response to the narrowing of space for free expression in the country. The group’s name is reported to derive from Kality Prison, the main jail where Ethiopia’s political prisoners are held. Access to the blog is reportedly regularly blocked within Ethiopia; however, it has a strong following among the Ethiopian diaspora community. Activities on the blog were reportedly suspended for seven months following the harassment of its members by security agents, but its contributors remained active on social media. Members of Zone 9 among those arrested are reported to have met with the International Press Institute during its November 2013 mission to the country.
PEN International’s campaigning on Ethiopia
In September 2013, PEN International submitted a report on the situation for writers and journalists and freedom of expression in Ethiopia, produced jointly with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom Now, to the Working Group of the UPR. The report finds that the climate for free expression, press freedom and digital freedom in Ethiopia has deteriorated since the first review in 2009. Ethiopia has failed to meet its commitments to bring anti-terror legislation into line with international human rights law standards or take any significant steps towards protecting media freedom. Ethiopia continues to threaten, prosecute and detain writers and journalists. Of particular concern is the continued use of arbitrary detention, lack of access to government information, supression of peaceful assembly and restrictive laws regarding the internet and digital technologies.
Since 2009, the state has increasingly utilised its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 to arbitrarily arrest, prosecute and detain independent journalists and opposition activists. At least five print journalists are currently held in the country for supposed terrorism offences: Eskinder Nega (journalist for now-defunct political magazine Change), Reeyot Alemu (contributor to the independent weekly Feteh), Woubshet Taye (deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times), Yusuf Getachew and Solomon Kebede (editor and managing editor of the now-defunct weekly newspaper Ye Muslimoch Guday [Muslim Affairs]); for more information see PEN’s previous actions and Case List. PEN believes that these journalists have been jailed because of their critical reporting and considers the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to be draconian. Actions classified as ‘terrorist’ by the law would often not even be considered crimes outside of Ethiopia.
In December 2013, PEN International protested the continuing imprisonment of Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega, calling on the Ethiopian authorities to release the journalists immediately and unconditionally and for Alemu to be given immediate access to medical treatment. PEN also invited members of PEN and the general public to send messages of solidarity to Alemu and Nega in prison and took part in #Kality Tweet Chat on the situation of press freedom in Ethiopia. On 8 March 2014, PEN International used International Women’s Day to once again raise awareness for Alemu, who spent her 1,000th day in prison that month.