Six Ethiopian bloggers, all members of the Zone Nine bloggers' collective, were arrested this weekend. Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret, and Abel Wabela were reportedly arrested in the streets or in their offices. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, police also searched their homes and confiscated private laptops and literature. After being held incommunicado in Maekelawi, a detention center in Addis Ababa, all six bloggers appeared before the Federal First Instance Court First Criminal Bench in Arada, where they were charged with “Working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and agreeing in idea and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media."
Since their formation in 2012, the Zone Nine bloggers have been vocal in their critique of government policy and practice, especially the growing role of government surveillance and ever-worsening crackdowns on independent media and free expression. Fellow Zone Nine blogger Endalk writes eloquently about the origins of the collective's name:
In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which—Zone Eight—is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.
When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.
Endalk also believes that his organization has been a target of government surveillance since the death of the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi because of critical articles they have published about Zenawi’s so-called economic development and other achievements. "While he received favorable coverage from many press outlets," Edalk writes, "we have shown his achievements are dubious." Sources have told Human Rights Watch that the bloggers have faced considerable harassment, including questioning by alleged intelligence agents who asked about the work of the group and their alleged links to political opposition parties and human rights groups. Intelligence agents also allegedly asked the bloggers to give up the names and addresses of other Zone Nine members.
As if in-person intimidation was not enough, security researchers at Citizen Lab have uncovered evidence that the Ethiopian government has been using Internet surveillance technology from UK-based FinFisher and Milan-based Hacking Team to spy on dissidents and journalists. In February 2014, EFF filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government on behalf of an American citizen living in Washington DC, whose computer was allegedly infected with spyware by the Ethiopian government, which allegedly used to spy on his Skype calls and Google searches.
The arrests come days before United States Secretary of State John Kerry's scheduled visit to Ethiopia. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom in Addis Ababa “to discuss efforts to advance peace and democracy in the region.” EFF joins with organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, in calling for the immediate release of the bloggers. We hope that Secretary Kerry will recognize that peace and democracy are not compatible with censorship, intimidation, pervasive surveillance, and a crackdown on free expression and independent media.