Ethiopia’s alleged terrorists: vocal bloggers and independent journalists

by Zelalem

Iain Levine
of Human Rights Watch has noted
that “an essential element of human rights work is to fulfill the moral
imperative of bearing witness, by demonstrating solidarity with local activists
and showing principled support for victims of human rights violations.”

The real test
for human rights organizations, whether they work in democratic or
non-democratic settings, is how they respond to the most difficult, and at times
controversial cases of rights abuses. Fear of government reprisal should not
prevent those who claim to work for a free and democratic Ethiopia from
standing in solidarity with activists facing persecution.

Ethiopian bloggers and journalists under arrest

The Ethiopian
government levied terrorism charges against seven bloggers from the Zone 9
(one in abstentia), and
three independent journalists on July 17, 2014, almost three months after
detaining them in April. With the 2015 national elections approaching, there
are indications that the arrests were politically motivated. No credible
evidence has been provided to substantiate the government’s allegations, that
the bloggers were connected to terrorist organizations, and that they were
planning to destabilize the country. In fact, there is every indication that
the bloggers were using social media to peacefully voice their concerns about
the lack of democracy in Ethiopia, promote civic dialogue among the youth, and
organize virtual campaigns; including one calling on the Ethiopian government
to respect the country’s liberal constitution.

The bloggers
readily interacted with politically conscious youth on both sides of Ethiopia’s
highly polarized environment. Despite a repressive regime that silences
millions of Ethiopians, the Zone 9ers “blogged because they cared.”

A poster asking for the bloggers release: “Let us mourn for those of us who are silenced by the shackles of fear, instead of those who are incarcerated by an authoritarian system for speaking their heart.” (Credit @Berehket)

Outcry from international community

The arbitrary
arrests and detention of the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists generated a substantial
outcry. Regional and international organizations such as Amnesty International, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, the Media Legal Defense Initiative, and Reporters Without Borders, have denounced the arrests as one more example of
the disregard for rule of law in Ethiopia, and called for the immediate release
of the activists.

During his
visit to Addis Ababa in April 2014, a few days after the bloggers and
journalists were arrested, US Secretary of State John Kerry privately raised concerns with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. At a press
conference, the Secretary emphasized that anti-terrorism proclamations should
not be used to curb the free exchange of ideas. The US State Department has
since reiterated these concerns.

Ethiopia’s NGOs remain silent

In the face
of this vocal advocacy from regional and international human rights
institutions, the lack of solidarity from Ethiopia-based organizations is both
disconcerting and disheartening.

The silence
of Ethiopia’s diminished rights-based organizations can partly be attributed to
the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which created a repressive environment for
NGOs. One provision of this law prohibits organizations that receive more than 10
percent of their funds from foreign sources from engaging in activities
intended to promote democracy, human rights, conflict resolution, and the
protection of the rights of women, minorities, and ethnic groups.

The Charities
and Societies Agency, a newly established regulatory body, is authorized to
monitor NGOs, interfere in their internal affairs, and dissolve organizations
found to be in contravention of the law’s largely ambiguous directives. As a
result, the nascent civil society sector in Ethiopia has been crippled.
Many NGOs have had to change their mandates from rights and advocacy related activities, and
direct their focus to less controversial areas such as development.

The absence
of public advocacy for the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists by Ethiopia-based
organizations is symptomatic of the proclamation’s impact on rights-based work.
None of Ethiopia’s NGOs have dared to join the international outcry and call
for the release of those arrested. Even after the youth were charged under the
country’s draconian and overly broad anti-terrorism proclamation, which has consistently come under international
scrutiny for being used to circumvent freedom of expression, we have yet to see
a principled stand from Ethiopia-based organizations.

While some
might defend the disinclination of rights-based organizations to engage in
public acts of solidarity, the dearth of private encouragement and support for
the young activists is nonetheless disturbing. Even before the Zone 9 bloggers
were arrested, some civil society leaders were uncomfortable, and at times
unwilling, to attend private human rights events that were inclusive of the
bloggers. Although such precaution may help to ensure the survival of some
Ethiopian NGOs in the short-term, it will surely be a detriment to the human
rights sector in the long run. In an authoritarian environment, trying to
eliminate risk from the inherently risky field of human rights work is not

So, what would solidarity look like?

solidarity would begin with publicly embracing the bloggers as activists with a
legitimate place in discussions about human rights, and being prepared to
support them without regard to the government’s accusations. Under the current circumstances,
prison visits would go a long way toward fostering solidarity, as would
attempts to investigate the incidents of abuse and torture that the detainees
have reported. Ethiopian human rights organizations can play an important role
in monitoring court proceedings and coordinating pro bono legal services for the young activists where necessary.
NGOs could also demonstrate solidarity with their fellow activists by using
available channels (be it with government officials, the diplomatic and donor
community, or regional and international organizations) to appeal their

NGOs can learn from the online and offline activism that has sprung up in
support of the bloggers and journalists. Since the arrests, young Ethiopians
have taken to twitter and other platforms under the #freezone9bloggers campaign. Within four weeks, the trial tracker blog went up online and now acts as a repository
of information about the arrests, court appearances, and issues related to
freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Numerous youth have appeared at each
scheduled court hearing, and many have visited the bloggers and journalists in
prison to show their support, despite the constant threat of harassment from
security officials.

human rights organizations would benefit from reaching out to concerned youth and
other citizens as potential members and volunteers, to nurture their passions
and encourage their activism. In fact, such an approach could infuse much
needed dynamism and creativity into these beleaguered organizations. In light
of current limits on financial support from foreign sources, engaging and
recruiting politically conscious youth could become an important method of
strengthening the human rights community, and promoting a more open and
inclusive Ethiopia.

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