UPDATE: The Lideta Federal High Court today rejected evidence submitted by Zelalem and his colleagues and postponed a verdict in their case until August 21. The defendants had to appear in court without legal representation, since their lawyer had his license revoked by the Ministry of Justice last week. The rejection suggests the Court is likely to accept the prosecutor's evidence, which was gathered after the defendants were taken into custody. If found guilty, they may appeal their sentence.
The simple act of taking steps to protect oneself online is enough to send a journalist to jail, according to charges issued by Ethiopian prosecutors in several cases to be heard this week. An Ethiopian court will soon hand down verdicts in a number of cases where criminal charges could be assessed for attending or applying to attend Internet security training.
Five of the Zone 9 bloggers (four of whom are in prison and one who is being tried in absentia) will face a long-awaited verdict in the case on July 29 after the court adjourned a planned hearing on July 20. Seven of the bloggers were arrested under criminal and anti-terrorism charges for acts that include participating in online security training sessions where they learned how to use encryption technologies such as Tactical Tech and Front Line Defenders’ Security in a Box guide. As evidence for their alleged crimes, prosecutors submitted widely available documents including Security in a Box: Tools & Tactics in Digital Security as well as guides on secure passphrases and message encryption to make their case against the bloggers much like EFF’s own Surveillance Self-Defense.
If convicted, the mandatory sentence in Ethiopia for terrorism and incitement offenses is a minimum of eight years—however hope remains that the court will exonerate the bloggers in the absence of substantive evidence to support the charges, according to Zone 9 founding member Endalk Chala. Already five of the bloggers were released last week, which some have attributed to anticipation of a visit by President Barack Obama at the end of the month.
In another group of cases, Yonatan Wolde, Abraham Solomon, Bahiru Degu, and Zelalem Workagenhu are facing charges for applying to attend an Internet security and social media training session abroad. All four were detained on July 8, 2014, along with six other locally-based opposition politicians, social media activists, and youths, on suspicion that they have links to the diaspora-based opposition group Ginbot 7. Zelalem, who was the co-organizer of the training session, is also charged with using social media to oust the government and sending reports that appeared on independent Ethiopian satellite service ESAT tv. They will appear in court on July 22 to hear a verdict.
The regularity of these arrests suggests a concerning trend, in which journalists are being arrested for the suspicion of what they might say or do and detained without any substantive evidence to support their crimes. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye said in a recent report that not only do such charges “fail to meet the standards for permissible restrictions,” states like Ethiopia “…undermine the rights to privacy and freedom of expression when they penalize those who produce and distribute tools to facilitate online access for activists.”
“Encryption and anonymity, and the security concepts behind them, provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age. Such security may be essential for the exercise of other rights, including economic rights, privacy, due process, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to life and bodily integrity,” Kaye said in the report.
Encryption is indeed a powerful tool that not only enables users to communicate securely online, but fosters the kind of conditions that make freedom of expression possible. Its use should never be cause for the deprivation of freedom.