It has been over three weeks since close to a dozen journalists and bloggers were arrested, most of whom members of the blogging collective known as Zone 9. Their site, hosted in Google’s Blogger platform, was launched two years ago with a catching motto “We blog because we care.” They coined the name after a visit to the Zone 8 of the Kaliti prison, where a fellow journalist, Reeyot Alemu, is serving a five-year sentence. Zone 9 is a metaphor to say the rest of the populace is also in jail but in a different cell block. No surprises, their page was blocked within weeks of its launch.
Abel Wabela, Asmamaw W/Giorigis, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Tesfalem Weldyes, Zelalem Kebret have been locked up in the notorious Maekelawi in the north of Addis, where the tradition of torture is well alive and kicking.The bloggers were public servants,university professors,information technology professionals, full-time journalists so on and so forth.
As it has become absurdly the norm, police had detained then started to investigate the alleged crimes, dashing the hopes of a speedy trial. So far the broad allegations are: working with a foreign organization that claim to be human rights group; conspiring to incite violence via the social media. An advisor to the Prime Minister put it as “criminal activities” without delving into specifics. Police have requested more time to investigate. The courts have no problem granting the wishes of the police at the expense of the detainees.
Some papers that came out in the last couple of days said, weeks after the arrest nobody knows the reason for their detention. However piecing together the words of police and close associates of the ruling party , there are clues to indicate where this thing is going to end up.
At the beginning of April, security officials detained Patrick Mutahi, a Kenyan national and a staff of Article 19 – a London based rights group working for the defense of freedom of expression — at the Bole International Airport. His earlier visits to the country (said to be five times) have been closely monitored.
Ironically Patrick’s travel to Ethiopia was related to a training on security and safety. Talking of safety, media watchdog groups train journalists in various skills. In recent years, with governments filtering the web, the subject of circumnavigating censorship; concealing the location from where blogs are posted have gained traction. Back in the early days of Internet filtering, the Paris based Reporters without Borders produced a famous manual called Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents to help protect journalists in otherwise unfriendly political systems.
While Patrick was deported back to his country after a day in custody, his cell phone was confiscated, leaving behind a trove of information.
In March of this year Human Rights Watch published a report on the state of surveillance in Ethiopia. The 100 page report entitled: ‘They Know Everything We Do: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia’ explains how security officials willy-nilly eavesdrop on the phone conversation of citizens. Here is a witness telling his encounter in the report:
“After some time I got arrested and detained. They had a list of people I had spoken with. They said to me, “You called person x and you spoke about y.” They showed me the list—there were three pages of contacts—it had the time and date, phone number, my name, and the name of the person I was talking with. “All your activities are monitored with government. We even record your voice so you cannot deny. We even know you sent an email to an OLF [Oromo Liberation Front] member.” I said nothing.”
Hence, the call log in Patrick’s phone will reveal all the individuals he had contacted. No matter what the conversations, it would be construed in a way that justifies the government’s paranoia.
A day after the detention of most of the suspects, Mimi Sebhatu, a close confidant of the Meles-Azeb family went on to her radio station and said the suspects had contact with Article 19. Mimi may have an inside knowledge not least because of her association with the inner circle as to her family’s history in the lucrative security business in the country.
In the closed court appearance police told the judges that some of the suspects travelled to Kenya and have received money and training from a human rights group. Police stopped short of mentioning who the rights group was.
TPLF run online media in North America are having a field day attacking Article 19 and the bloggers. They call the group “a neo-liberal extremist organization for hire, created for the sole reason of overthrowing democratically elected governments.” And the bloggers are guilty even before they are formally charged. “It’s a criminal act to make Addis Ababa turn into Ukraine’s Kiev for the sake of money, by working with the likes of ‘Article 19’ Eritrea and Egypt,” opined one.
So there should be no doubt as to what the charges will be associated with. The insiders have told us in no uncertain terms that it is all about Article 19. We, surly, will stay tuned.
Originally posted on Nov.14, 2011
The Ethiopian Federal High Court was busy this past week looking into the case of scores of terror suspects that were paraded before them. Unfortunately dozens of them are still at large, but nonetheless tried in absentia. Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs will be a little busy over the next couple of days writing letters of extradition – if they are serious about it, that is – to several countries across three continents.
Some of the suspects have been sentenced to death many times that they will be forgiven if they lost track of how many death sentences they have on their head.
Charges against journalists.
Eleven journalists have been charged with terrorism, a record high since 2005 when private press journalists were charged en masse of treason and genocide. From the latest suspects six are under custody, two of them being expatriates. Five are living outside of Ethiopia sprawling across the three continents of Africa, Europe and North America. Some of them already citizens of other states and some even living abroad for almost as long as the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power.
Shimeles Kemal who actually writes the charges and doubles as the government spokesperson told TPLF owned Fana Radio Station last Friday that the charges have “nothing to do with freedom of the press. They are terrorists. Terrorists, simply because they work as media practitioners, will not be spared responsibility for their acts.”
Swedish men in Addis
The trial of the two Swedish photographers, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who are accused of supporting terrorist organization, began days earlier than the others. Their trial has attracted a lot of attention and the court was packed with diplomats and several local and international media representatives. The Swedes had the resources to hire top Ethiopian lawyers who have media experience and connections.
But Make no mistake that they will be released. Not to discount from the ability of the lawyers to effectively defend their clients, the fact is their case is hardly about their collaboration with terrorists. The regime in Addis wants to get to Sweden for criticizing human rights violations in Ethiopia over the years. As a result, last year the Prime Minister announced they were closing the embassy in Stockholm because “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden.”
Ethiopia and Sweden had diplomatic relations for over half a century. The same thing happened with Norway earlier when Ethiopia expelled six Norwegian diplomats. After a year the diplomatic relation with Norway was restored. The same will happen with Sweden when the dusts finally settle down. As to the charges, the most important evidence the prosecutor presented to the court was laptop computers, cameras and flash discs and other computer accessories.
The Ethiopian voices
Eight Ethiopian journalists were charged with terrorism. The ninth suspect Sileshi Hagos who has been under custody since early September has not been charged.
A look at the 17 page charges simply reinstates the common held view that the government is out to crush any sign of dissent. Buried under the clichés of terrorism, wrecking havoc, blowing up infrastructure etc, the actual offence that TPLF was irritated with are the following:
Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been in custody since June, 2011. Reeyot Alemu was a high school teacher and a contributor to the weekly Feteh. Woubshet Taye was deputy editor- in- chief of another weekly Awramba Times.
The two are accused of taking pictures of graffiti that say Enough (Beka) most notably around the regional bus terminal in Merkato. To prove their points the prosecutors brought to the court homeless street kids and tissue vendors from around the terminal popularly known as Atobis Tera.
Eskinder Nega was arrested days after the Ethiopian New Year in September. He is probably the most experienced journalist of all who are charged. He has been in the media business for two decades. As he has been denied of his right to publish, he was contributing articles to online media, most of which are even blocked in the country.
His well articulated weekly articles written in impeccable English and Amharic were well received. One of his most memorable articles entitled Open letter to PM Meles Zenawi he says: “Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want — no, need — you to leave office… The people are closely watching events in North Africa. Listen to them before it’s too late.” In Mubarak in court: Is Meles next? Eskinder warns: “An African Spring, with Ethiopia, Africa’s largest dictatorship, as its epicenter, is unavoidable.”
Writing about his former prison mate of 17 months, the legendary actor Debebe Eshetu which incidentally was his last article before joining him again in the notorious Maekelawi prison, Eskinder wrote: “How in the world could such a person be involved in terrorism? It simply defies logic.” Eskinder was unabashedly right. Debebe was released over the weekend. In the charge brought against Eskinder it says: “He has called for terror and uprising. Using various means, he disseminated articles with a view to agitate the public.”
Three Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) journalists from Europe and America have also made it the charge list. Some of them are not new to Ethiopian prisons. ESAT is particularly known for the saga with the blockade of its television broadcast to Ethiopia. Their offence according to the charge is “for using the television program to agitate the public.”
Some of ESAT journalists accused of terrorism have a record of writing op-eds in such prestigious dailies as the Wall Street Journal. One of the accused Abebe Gellaw reacted to the charges by saying: “ I would like to thank you (the PM) profusely for including me in the latest roll call of patriots and freedom fighters…I assure you that the honor will inspire me to do even more to accomplish what is expected of me more effectively and efficiently.” But Abebe Belew who is a radio host in the U.S. told the Voice of America that he is taking the matter seriously. He wants to set up a legal team if other co-accused join him to take the matter all the way to US Congress and State Department.
The fourth category is the two journalists at the Addis Neger Online blog. The latest charges simply justifies the journalists fear when they fled the country two years ago, closing their popular weekly. They are accused of giving platforms for Ginbot 7 political party which has lately become TPLF’s worst nightmare.
Both of them have dropped messages on their Facebook pages. “For spending my waking hours thinking and talking about my country, for dreaming to see my country achieve its promise and potential, I am charged of terrorism by Meles Zenawi,” says Abiye Teklemariam. Mesfin Negash on his part posted: “My official Status according to Meles Zenawi’s book is changed to “a wanted terrorist.” It’ll inspire us all; don’t expect us to give up!!! ”
Waiting for the episode
When two week ago the prime minister was roaring like a lion about the evidences his spies gathered, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The tradition was they would bring out the usual rifles and bombs from the ammunition at Maekelawi prison and parade the prisoners there. Then announce the news that they were caught red handed trying to topple the “constitutional” government. Nothing like that this time! At least they have known by now that didn’t work for two decades. That’s a progress.
But trust me bringing street kids and toilet tissue vendors as witnesses is not a nice alternative either. Of course we can’t wait to see the docudrama that will be produced by ETV in collaboration with Ethiopia’s anti- terror task force .What part is the latest episode again?
Originally posted on June 27, 2011
At any given time there is an Ethiopian journalist in detention either in the notorious Maekelawi, Kerchele, and Kaliti or at times as far in a place as Assosa or even Gondar. Since the mid 1990s, scores of Ethiopian media professionals were put behind bars. The first victims of the government’s harsh response were the late Tefera Asmare of Ethiopis newspaper and its publisher Eskinder Nega. Tefera was forced to flee his country and died in exile in the Netherlands in 2003.
In its latest report, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Ethiopia as one of the top most jailers of media practitioners in the world. CPJ says there are six journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia. According to a data compiled by the media rights group, since 2001 about 79 journalists fled the country. With that number, Ethiopia leads the pack of the top 12 countries that are hostile to the independent press.
Ethiopian journalists are paying prices for doing what every journalist is supposed to do, write news or express views. The other week was particularly difficult. In less than a week, two journalists were put behind bars. No official reason has been given.
Pieces of information gathered from different corners lead to terrorism charges. How did an English language teacher and part time columnist find herself to be a terrorist? How was a family man, who does his job in full public sight as deputy editor-in-chief of a weekly, preparing to create havoc? At the moment only the guys from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have a clue.
As always the government spokesperson doesn’t know about the arrest. “There are no journalist arrests, incarcerated in Ethiopia,” Shimeles Kemal told CPJ shortly after the detention of Woubshet.
The legal excuse
In August 2009 the Ethiopian rubber stamp Parliament passed an Anti-Terror Proclamation. In short, this law is intended to give blanket authority to NISS to lock any journalist under the pretext of terrorism. Most of the articles in that legislation are deliberately vague that the government can take anything as an act of terrorism. Article 6 of the legislation says: “Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment… ” Of course, the underlined phrases can be interpreted in bazillion ways. The legislation is full of such articles and phrases.
Two years after that legislation, the 99.6 Parliament labeled Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, al-Qaeda and al- Shabaab terrorists. That was followed by the detention of Woubshet Taye of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, the columnist for another weekly Feteh.
Nobody can tell how long the journalists will stay in detention. The vague law gives security forces from 28 days up to four months to put them in prison without charges.
Woubshet Taye has been editor-in- chief of Awramba Times, the paper established in 2008 shortly after the release of its publisher Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison. The last feature Woubshet penned under his name was that of the June 18, 2011 feature entitled “Shimiyaw Yet Yadersenal,” an article about the rampant corruption taking place in the country. Though the article is critical of the government’s lack of commitment to tackle the problem, it is unlikely to touch the nerves of the occupants of the Arat Kilo Palace to overreact in such manner.
Woubshet has been in the radar of the authorities for a while though. In May 2010 he wrote a feature article entitled “Where did these people go?” The paper put that bold title against the backdrop of a huge public demonstration that took place five years earlier at Meskel Square.
Following the publication of that article, Woubshet was given a warning by the head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Desta Tesfaw, that he would be responsible for any riot in the aftermath of the elections. Woubshet immediately resigned his job. However, he came back to the paper three months later as co-deputy editor- in- chief. (That position has been a safe bet for Ethiopian private press journalists for legal reasons). In that capacity he wrote commentaries on topical issues. As Ethiopian authorities are famous for retroactive criminal charges, before he knew it Woubshet may find himself charged for an obscure article he may not even remember when it was published.
The weekly Feteh is one of the most critical of the government. The paper has already been charged with dozens of offences. Some even predicted the paper would fold. But the story of their death seems to be greatly exaggerated. The paper’s columnist Reeyot has been picked by security forces from the school where she teaches English. Her house searched and she was reported to have appeared before a judge in a closed court. But as a member of the faction of Unity for Democracy and Justice (Andinet Party), she is a natural target of government repression.
The way out…
Imprisoning journalists on all kinds of trumped up charges has been a tradition for the regime in Addis. The only thing that keeps changing is the pretext. In the initial years it used to be defamation, incitement followed soon, and then treason and genocide became the plat du jour. Now the new song in town is terrorism. The charges are intended to scare sympathizers of the outlawed opposition parties. But locking journalists or forcing them to flee will hardly be a solution to the regime’s perennial fears. The unconditional release of the media practitioners is the only way out.