Barely weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Aljazeera that his “government has a clear evidence” that the Zone 9 bloggers “are connected with one of the terrorist groups,” words came that five bloggers and journalists: Asmamaw Woldegiorigis, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun,Tesfalem Weldyes and Zelalem Kiberet were released abruptly. Along with them, award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu was also set free. Reeyot, who has been in jail since 2011, was probably months away from fully serving her five years sentence even without the customary parole which she declined to accept as it came with strings attached.
Some media claim that the release is intended to please US President Barack Obama who is scheduled to visit the country over the weekend. The government denies that saying they are simply extending “magnanimity,” to borrow the explanation of Redwan Hussein, the head of communication affaires office.
There were stories some just leaving the prisons with their pajamas on; some not sure as who to call and where to go. After 14 months spent in jails , the Ministry of Justice citing its authority given by some proclamation “decided to withdraw the charges,” according to the government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal. The ill-conceived and haphazard steps of the ministry created sigh as well as confusion. The released told media that they are not fully content as half of their colleagues are still behind bars on the same clueless charges. Their lawyer Ameha Mekonnen has a more professional concern. He told the local Amharic weekly Addis Admass that there was a precedent with the now imprisoned journalist Temesgen Desalegn whereby charges were reinstated after they had been dropped.
Then on July 20, many expected the courts to let the other four go under some pretext. Alas, that was not to be! The 19th bench of the Federal High Court citing technicalities adjourned the case for end of July. As part of the blogging ensemble charged with the same offense have been released, moving forward it is anybody’s guess what legal sense does the whole process make.
The adjournment has just added to the drama; first, Obama — if at all his upcoming visit caused the release — will have left the country by then, easing the pressure on the government; second, the more lengthy the trial, the likelihood of being forgotten looms.
Otherwise the inconsistency of the trial coupled with a judicial system considered an extension of the governing party makes the final outcome utterly unpredictable. Hoping for the best is all we can afford at this time for Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu and Natnael Feleke.
The 2015 edition of the Ethiopian general election — the fifth of its kind since the current rulers took command of state power — is happily over. The results were so predictable and inconsequential that a government leaning private weekly couldn’t hide the apparent. “No other national elections held over the past two decades have a result as obvious as the one held today.” International media had long come out with similar views. The Economist’s latest issue incidentally carried a story about Ethiopia, there the elections were just a side note dubbed “uneventful…with a predetermined outcome.”
The curious case of the professor
But the hoopla surrounding the elections unwittingly showed the true colours of the entire system, some new and some tired. Head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) famously said the ruling party doesn’t need the support of his institution to win an election, when some raised concern about the Board’s impartiality. Lately he has come out even more strongly, his combative edge getting the better of him. And those who casted doubt about the fairness of the polls should be “ashamed of themselves,” lashed out the former veterinary science professor over the weekend.
The new face of censorship
Censorship has scores of manifestations in the country. In its latest iteration electronics media were given a carte blanche to censor the contents of election campaign materials that representatives of contesting parties were supposed to air. While a number of candidates were eager not to miss their five minutes of fame on the national media, those who took the matter more seriously decided to quit the exercise all together.
Probably one of the most memorable part of the election was the Prime Minister’s interview on the Al Jazeera network. The Premier sat down with the former BBC news anchor Martine Dennis. The event had some intense moments reminiscent of the BBC’s Hard Talk host Stephen Sackur’s face off with Hailemariam’s predecessor two elections ago. Asked whether he wields real power: “Even during PM Meles era and period this country has been deciding collectively in the system.” Seriously? Martine got on Hailemariam’s nerves when she called the judiciary an extension of the government.“This is an insult for an independent judiciary system of Ethiopia,” the PM retorted. In his attempt to paint a rosy picture of the administration, the clichés of “developmental democratic state” and the rhetoric of neoliberalism were in full abundance. Any criticism against the system is a conspiracy of “the neoliberal paradigm and prescription,” whatever that meant. It was also interesting to hear him talk about the Zone 9 bloggers who have been detained since April 2014 on terrorism charges. “My government has a clear evidence that they are connected with one of the terrorist groups I will not tell you now.” Heaven only knows how long will it take till the “clear evidence” makes it to the court.
The ruling party’s complete sweep is creating discomfort within the party’s rank. Now they are in the business of damage control. Some of the party’s stalwarts are coming out in various media to bash the non-existent opposition calling it fragmented and only showing up during election times. Having jailed and driving the better part of the opposition out of the country, TPLF/EPRDF has only itself to blame for the embarrassment of a 100 percent victory. “They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.” Hail to the Poet!
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.