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54 Days in Prison and Counting for Ethiopia's Zone 9 Bloggers

Free Zone 9 Bloggers banner. Original design by Hugh D'Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat.

Free Zone 9 Bloggers banner. Original design by Hugh D'Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat.

It has been 54 days since six members of the Zone Nine blogging collective [am] and three journalists believed to be associated with the group were arrested in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The group formed in 2012 in an effort to report on and increase public discussion about political and social issues affecting a diverse cross-section of Ethiopian society.

On their Facebook page, they describes themselves as young Ethiopians seeking to use fact-based reporting and analysis to create a new, more nuanced narrative of life in Ethiopia today:

Zone9 is an informal group of young Ethiopian bloggers working together to create an alternative independent narration of the socio-political conditions in Ethiopia and thereby foster public discourse that will result in emergence of ideas for the betterment of the Nation

The bloggers have appeared in court at four times since their arrest on April 25, 2014 — their next court date has been set for July 12, 2014. Each time, police have asked for more time to carry out their investigation of the group. Although they have been informally accused of “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and agreeing in idea and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media,” they have been issued no formal charges as of yet. Close friends and allies of the group fear that they will be charged with terrorism, similar to journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, both Ethiopian journalists who have been in prison since 2011.

Following their arrest, Global Voices Online released a statement calling for their release, invited supporters to join the #FreeZone9Bloggers campaign through letter-writing and online efforts, and organised the FreeZone9Bloggers Tweetathon on May 14, 2014.

zonenine

As the Zone9 bloggers continue to languish in jail, the Ethiopian government is allegedly training bloggers to attack those who criticise the government online:

The Ethiopian Government is trying to reduce online criticism by training recruits to attack information on the web that are critical of its administration, the Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT) reported.

According to the report, in the second round of new recruits, 235 bloggers were trained in Adama on Facebook and other social media sites on how to shape public opinion by posting comments and documents that support the regime.

The training was given to selected people from different ethnic groups who support the regime, and that the trainees report directly to government officials, ESAT said.

So far, the trainees have opened 2,350 Facebook, Twitter and blog accounts to show the Ethiopian regime in a favorable light, and to criticize anti-government articles, websites, the Ethiopian opposition and the Eritrean government

Nigerian British YouTube comedian Ikenna Azuike dedicated an episode of his satirical news show “What's Up Africa” to the bloggers’ plight. In ”Zone 9 Bloggers Paradise in Ethiopia,” he jests: 

Just because [Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn] ordered the arrest of nine people who happen to be bloggers and journalists doesn't mean this is part of the biggest crackdown on dissent since the 2005 post-election mass arrests. 

Why is the Ethiopian government afraid of bloggers? Alemayehu G. Mariam explained:

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator of France, as he declared war on that country’s independent press. For the regime in Ethiopia, the pens and computer keyboards of a handful of independent journalists and bloggers are more to be feared than ten thousand bayonets mounted on AK-47s. All dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press. The benighted dictators in Ethiopia fear the enlightening powers of an independent press more than the firepower of several fully equipped infantry divisions.

Total control of the media and suppression of independent journalists remains the wicked obsession of the regime. They believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of the people. They believe they can fabricate truth out of falsehood by controlling the media. By crushing the independent press, they believe they can fool all of the people all of the time. But they know deep down in their stone cold hearts that “truth will not forever remain on the scaffold, nor wrong remain forever on the throne.” They live each day in the land of living lies fearful of losing their throne.

The author continued:

The E bloggers and journalists are special Ethiopian heroes and heroines. They are truth-tellers and -warriors. They fight tyranny with their pens and computer keyboards. Their ammunition are truth, words, ideas, facts and opinions. They slay falsehoods with the sword of truth. They chase bad ideas with good ones and advocate replacing old ideas with new ones. They fight the people’s despair with words of hope. They teach the people that fear is overcome with acts of courage. They fight ignorance and powerful ignoramuses with knowledge and reason. They stand up to arrogance and hubris with defiant humility. They seek to transform intolerance with forbearance; resist oppression with perseverance and defeat doubt with faith. They fight with their pens and keyboards on the battleground that is the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people.

On Twitter, friends and supporters are keeping awareness alive using the hashtag #Zone9Bloggers:

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