“Initially, it was not about political activism or about criticizing the government. It was to connect with like-minded people,” said Soliyana Shimeles, 28, one of the founders of the blog Zone 9.
Today, six of the bloggers are in jail facing terrorism charges in what human rights and press-freedom advocates call an example of an alarming crackdown on government critics.
The Zone 9 bloggers are accused of “creating serious risk to the safety or health of the public” under the country’s controversial anti-terrorism law passed in 2009. The charges further allege the bloggers were linked to Ginbot 7, an opposition movement based abroad that the government labeled a terrorist group in 2011. The bloggers have pleaded innocent.
Their attorney, Ameha Mekonnen, has complained that the charges offer few particulars. The trial began at the end of March but was adjourned until after the national elections in May. If convicted, the defendants could receive death sentences.
Members of Ethiopia’s online community say the case has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The U.S. State Department criticized the Ethiopian high court’s decision in January to proceed with the trial, saying that it “undermines a free and open media environment.”
Ethiopia has been an important American ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group based in Somalia. But while Ethiopia is a multi-party democracy on paper, its ruling party controls all but one seat in parliament.
The “Zone9ers” hail from a relatively privileged urban educated class in one of the world’s poorest countries. Only 2 percent of Ethiopian households have access to the Internet in this Horn of Africa nation, whose outdated, state-run, telecommunication infrastructure ranks among the continent’s least developed.
The nine bloggers — three journalists, a human rights lawyer and professionals working in business, government and academia —met online while raising money for the family of an Ethiopian maid who died while working in Lebanon. They called their blog Zone 9, a term said to be used by political prisoners in the capital’s Kaliti jail to refer to an outside world they viewed as equally shackled by the lack of civil liberties.
The bloggers, part of a generation that came of age after a Marxist dictatorship was toppled in 1991, said they wanted to raise awareness about political and social issues in a society disengaged from civic matters. Their blog posts called on young Ethiopians to demand rights set forth in the constitution and to put into practice the democracy the government had promised.
“I used to think our discussions could transform our audiences into the kind of society we want. I was very naïve,” said a close friend of the bloggers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
National elections in 2005 were preceded by a relatively open climate, allowing the opposition to win a third of the seats in the 547-member parliament. But after the vote, there were mass arrests of opposition politicians and student protesters. In the years that followed, several newspapers and magazines were shut down.
“The ruling party has become wary of media they cannot directly control,” said Daniel Berhane, an Ethiopian blogger and editor of the current-affairs Web site “Horn Affairs,” referring to the Zone 9 case.
Yet many Ethiopians believe that the group’s blog posts, which had an average of 18,000 readers in a country of 94 million, were not what landed them behind bars.
The “Zone9ers” attended events organized by international human rights organizations. The Ethiopian government has frequently been critical of such groups, accusing them of being politicized.
The bloggers also attended training sessions held abroad and in Ethiopia on Internet security, which may have upset a government that has been accused of surveillance of its critics’ online activity.
The bloggers regularly visited jailed dissidents, including prominent journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition member Andualem Aragie, to express their support.
Shimeles’s mother, Yikanu Yelma, said the young blogger drew inspiration from her father, who had been jailed in 1977 for opposing the communist regime in power. “She used to say: my Dad contributed something during his time. I need to contribute something during my time,” Yelma recalled in an interview in Addis Ababa.
The Zone 9 bloggers chose to use their real names online “to be accountable for what we say,” Shimeles, who has been charged in absentia, explained in a Skype interview from Washington, where she has applied for political asylum.
On April 25 last year, six of the nine bloggers were arrested. Shimeles and another member of the group happened to be abroad, while a third participant managed to flee the country. Three independent journalists are facing charges alongside the Zone 9 bloggers.
The trial has been adjourned repeatedly. The bloggers’ attorney said none of the evidence presented thus far implicate his clients in crimes.
The Ethiopian government has rejected criticism of its handling of the case by Western governments and human rights groups. It asserts the bloggers are on trial for attempting to sabotage the state. “None of them were arrested for what they wrote,” said Ganenu Asefa, an adviser at the Government Office for Communication Affairs.
Ethiopia’s government has achieved double-digit growth in the past five years, driven largely by state intervention in the economy and massive public investments. But the independence of its judicial system was rated 2.9 out of a best possible score of 7 in a recent report by the World Economic Forum. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front dismisses criticism about the political system.
“We want our democratic values to grow from within. We don’t want anyone to export them to us,” said Dina Mufti, spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Family and friends of the bloggers say that their arrests, ironically, may have drawn attention to a group that previously had little influence.
“My sister often says that they have done more for their cause while in prison,” says Fisseha Fantahun, the brother of one jailed blogger, 30-year-old Mahilet Fantahun, who had worked as a data analyst at the Ministry of Health.
But other Ethiopians say the trial has been effective in sending a chilling message.
Many members of the online community have started using aliases or have abandoned blogging altogether. A close friend who regularly visits the jailed bloggers said they have voiced disappointment at the void left by their arrests.
“Their ideas were not taken forward by anyone. It’s very sad,” he said. He himself has retreated from the online community.