November 15, 2016

Member of award-winning blogging collective arrested in Addis

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about the detention of Befekadu Hailu, a citizen journalist and member of the Zone 9 blogging collective, since 11 November, amid a spate of violations of freedom of information by the government since it declared a state of emergency on 9 October.

Hailu previously spent 18 months in detention after being arrested along with five other members of the Zone 9 collective under Ethiopia’s terrorism law in April 2014. Zone 9 was awarded RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in the citizen journalist category last year.

Colleagues reported Hailu’s latest arrest to Agence France-Presse. Zone 9’s Facebook page says he was arrested in connection with an interview he gave to Voice of America’s Amharic-language service on 31 October. The police are said to be holding him at a police station in the Addis Ababa district of Kotebe.

Zone 9 bloggers still being harassed

Hailu and the five other Zone 9 members arrested in April 2014 were initially charged with “working with foreign organizations claiming to defend human rights” and “receiving funding in order to incite the public to violence via social media.” They were subsequently charged with violating the terrorism law.

Two of the six detained Zone 9 members were released on the justice minister’s orders in July 2015, shortly before a visit to Ethiopia by US President Barack Obama. The other four were acquitted and released in October 2015. A seventh Zone 9 member who was tried in absentia was also acquitted.

However, the prosecutor’s office appealed against their acquittal to the supreme court, which is due to hold a hearing on the appeal today.

“We call on the authorities to bring no charges against the citizen journalist Befekadu Hailu and to free him at once,” RSF editor-in-chief Virginie Dangles said. “We also urge the supreme court to uphold the acquittal of the Zone 9 bloggers. The prosecution was unable to support the charges against them at their trial and no new evidence has been produced since then.”

Natnael Feleke, one of the Zone 9 members acquitted in October 2015, was also arrested again six weeks ago, on 4 October, for referring in a public place to government repression. He was released on bail two days later.

Zone 9 representative Zelalem Kibret was prevented from travelling to France in November 2015 to receive the RSF Prize. Officials confiscated his passport without giving an explanation as he was about to board his flight.

Crackdown on free speech under state of emergency

The already limited space for free speech and for independent news and information has shrunk even more since the state of emergency was imposed on 9 October in order to suppress a wave of protests by members of the Oromo community, dozens of whom have been killed.

Under the state of emergency, viewing, sharing or republishing reports by diaspora media outlets such as Ethiopian Satellite Radio and Television (ESAT) and Oromo Media Network is now punishable by three to five years in prison because these outlets are deemed to be “owned by terrorist organizations.”

Ethiopia’s sole Internet service provider, Ethiocell, disconnected the Internet in most of the country, including the capital, on 9 October, at a time when mobile Internet had already been disconnected in the Oromo and Amhara regions for several weeks because of the anti-government protests.

As a result, social networks and all apps such as Skype that use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) were rendered inaccessible. Social networks and mobile Internet are still blocked.

These measures have also had an impact on the print media. The Addis Standard, an English-language monthly that is one of the country’s few independent newspapers, announced on 25 October that it was suspending its print edition and laying off a dozen of its 23 employees because it could not find a company to print it.

Addis Standard co-founder and editor Tsedale Lemma told Agence France-Presse that their lawyers had advised them not to print anything political.

Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 Press Freedom Index. For more information about Ethiopia, click here.