In 2012, Soleyana Gebremichael (née Shimeles) co-founded Zone 9, an Ethiopian blogging collective named after the zones in Kality Prison, the jail where Ethiopia’s journalists are held. Frequently blocked by the authorities, Zone 9’s posts criticized the government for its anti-constitutional political repression, corruption, and social injustices. In 2014, Ethiopian authorities arrested six bloggers affiliated with the Zone 9 collective and charged them with terrorism. Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahum, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu were sent to jail. Soleyana was travelling in Nairobi when her colleagues were arrested. Already in possession of an American visa, she came to the United States when she was charged in absentia with terrorism.
In Ethiopia, more than a dozen journalists have been imprisoned under the 2009 anti-terrorism law. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Ethiopian Constitution, but under the anti-terrorism law, dissent is a criminal act. Ethiopia, which ranks #142 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders, is the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world,according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In July 2015, shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, authorities released Mahlet Fantahm and Zelalem Kibret from prison and dropped all charges against them. The other four bloggers remain in prison.
Earlier this month, CPJ named the Zone 9 bloggers among the winners of the 2015 International Press Freedom Award. Sampsonia Way interviewed Soleyana Gebremichael about the significance of the award and how Ethiopia’s practice of using fear as a mechanism to silence dissent is spreading throughout the Horn of Africa.
Congratulations on winning the 2015 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). What is the importance of this award for you and the Zone 9 bloggers?
The feeling of international solidarity, especially for our colleagues in prison. One of the challenges of being in prison is it makes you feel like you are alone. Even your jailers want you to feel that you are confined in a small place. So these kinds of awards are very inspirational for people in such a situation. It makes them feel like, “Okay, there are some other people thinking about us, thinking about freedom of expression in Ethiopia.”
Do the authorities in Ethiopia pay attention to these kinds of awards?
The government usually blames international human rights organizations and award committee organizations like CPJ as [being] a tool for Western ideology to be imposed on sovereign countries like Ethiopia. They never recognize them as human rights groups. I’m not going to be surprised if the government says, “These organizations don’t really work for human rights, [and] they are trying to impose their ideology on Ethiopia.”
How are the people in Ethiopia reacting? Do they buy the government’s narrative, that these awards are “tools of Western ideology”?
It’s obvious that when the government says something about an organization or individual or group, [it’s because] they are opposing [the government’s] human rights record.
Many people tried to congratulate us, and said that the award is a very good thing for people in prison. There are some other people who want to use the Internet as a platform for freedom of expression, especially as the offline media is being attackedagain and again. But it’s not a full celebration because being awarded [under] a repressive regime as a symbol of freedom of expression is not something you feel good about. It would have been better if we had not gotten the award and Ethiopia could be a better place for freedom of expression in the media.
In recognizing Zone 9 with this award, CPJ said that they wanted to recognize the important role that bloggers play in countries where the government attacks traditional media. What freedoms did using the blogging platform allow you?
We don’t have to go through any bureaucratic licensing — get permission to say what [we] want to say — any process to establish a platform. The Internet is a very easy, free platform. You can use it very easily if you have access.
We didn’t have access to a big media platform so we turned access to the Internet into access to a media platform. It avoided all the problems that we might [have] face[d] if we wanted to use an established media house in country.
It had its own limitation of course. The access to Internet is [limited] in Ethiopia. In general it was the easiest thing to do.
Ethiopian journalists have said that the government wants to control the media’s narrative because they want to portray a certain kind of reality. What “reality” does the Ethiopian government want to portray? How did Zone 9 challenge that reality?
One of the “realities” that the government wants to portray is that there [are] no rights violations in Ethiopia, [that] people should only talk about development and economic change, infrastructure, the roads. All the ministers of the media and the media controlled by the government were forced to talk about these things while there are so many other governance, democracy and rights-related issues which are related to the Constitution and which are really fundamental to human beings.
So what we were trying to say was that it’s very good that all these things are going around, that the economy is getting better and the infrastructure is improving, but at the same time, we have other concerns as citizens there are other things we want to talk about. And that is what we did. We started talking about governance, we started talking about democracy, [and] we started challenging the government bymentioning the Constitution in the articles, campaigning for respecting the Constitution. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and democracy are rights all given under the Constitution. So if you ask me what we did for those two years, we just asked for different articles of the Constitution, and different rights to be respected. That’s it.
You and your six colleagues were charged with terrorism. What does the government gain from promoting a culture of fear?
By silencing dissent, [they] will extend [their] stay in power. For me, it’s as easy as that: the government wants to stay in power and they don’t want to be accountable for the wrong things they did. So they silence everyone who is questioning what they are doing, so it is the same in our case. We were asking questions about the Constitution and we were charged with terrorism.
Is this practice influencing the Horn of Africa?
Definitely. It’s not only terrorism. Ethiopia has been leading all the repressive legislation enacted in the region. So we can see the Civil Society Proclamation, which was enacted in 2009. And following that, Kenya, South Sudan, and now Uganda are trying to replicate such kinds of repression. This limits civil society from working with human rights, freedom of expression governance, and all issues related with rights.
The same thing is happening with the anti-terrorism proclamation which was
enacted in 2009 and came to be implemented in 2010. The other African countriesare using that precedent to enact laws to silence dissent.
Ethiopia is setting a precedent in every aspect of freedom of civil society, freedom of expression, and jailing journalists to silence dissent.
Five journalists, including two of your colleagues (Mahlet Fantahum and Zelalem Kibret) were released prior to President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. What was the motivation behind the releasing these two bloggers? Was it any indication that press freedom will improve in Ethiopia?
It’s really early to say. Currently, I am not seeing it as [representing] a significant change in the country. After [they were released] we saw the conviction of the Muslims committee leaders [in the Ethiopian Muslims protest movement] after three years [in trial], which was a very shocking and frustrating thing. It seems like the government is doing the same thing: postponing trials and giving high sentences for dissent and those who ask for their rights.
Do Mahlet and Zelalem have any sense of liberation now that they have been released in prison?
In general, they feel bad that they are out and their friends are still in prison. They don’t really understand why they are out [and the other four bloggers remain in prison].
It’s very difficult to predict what the reason is [for Mahlet and Zelalem’s release]. The charges were all the same.
You have said that being charged with terrorism did not come as a surprise. It had happened to other journalists and bloggers in Ethiopia before Zone 9 was charged. Why did you continue with your work anyway?
You can’t stop doing what you are doing because it is not a crime. That’s very easy. What we were doing and what we were asking was within our constitutional rights.
The government tries to portray our activities as illegal by criminalizing it or by creating this kind of fear, an environment where people who are writing are going to jail, people who are asking for their rights are going to jail. That is to create the impression that writing and asking for rights is a criminal activity. So we are not obeying that law.
We are obeying the laws of the land and the Constitution. We are not obeying the oppression and criminalization of dissent.
We were reminding ourselves that we were doing something legal. It was not a criminal activity. It had nothing to do with crime or terrorism or changing the Constitution.
We kept the legal framework very real and we were checking ourselves on even the lower legal standards they use in the country. We obeyed those laws.