Nine independent bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia face their 60th day in detention today, after being arrested on 25th and 26th April in an action described by Amnesty International as “a major crackdown… on freedom of expression”.
Six of the prisoners were members of an activist group Zone 9, which frequently spoke out against government clampdowns on political freedom. In Ethiopia, censorship and state spying run to the extent that Skype remains banned in the country as a tool for subversives.
Officially, the writers are charged with “working with foreign organisations claiming to be human rights activists to destabilise the nation” and “receiving funding in order to incite the public to violence via social media”.
According to Reporters Without Borders, several court hearings have been cancelled already while police are given more time to investigate the case. If convicted under the 2009 anti-terrorism act, the nine face up to 10 years in prison. The 2009 law has been repeatedly criticised by domestic and international activists as too broad in its definition of terrorism and often misused to suppress criticism of the government. In 2011, 200 members of opposition parties were arrested using the legislation.
A personal friend of the Zone 9 journalists told htxt.africa that only family have been permitted to talk to those imprisoned, but protests of up to 300 people have taken place outside government buildings demanding their release.
The 60-day anniversary of the Zone 9ers’ arrest coincides with another clampdown on the press in Egypt, where three Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison yesterday for allegedly working with The Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that was removed from power via a military coup a year ago.
According to figures from the World Bank Ethiopia remains the highest recipient of foreign aid in Africa, and the third highest recipient of donor money in the world, with more than R30bn flowing into the country in assistance between 2009-2013. Human Rights Watch has criticised foreign aid suppliers as being “reluctant to criticise” the Ethiopian government, although US Secretary of State John Kerry did bring up the Zone 9 arrests during a visit to the country earlier this year.
Three of the journalists are expected to appear in court on 29th June, with the remaining six scheduled for an appearance on 13th July. A Facebook page has been co-ordinating support for the detained bloggers.
[Image – Zone 9 Facebook]