Nairobi — The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the Ethiopian government's arrests of nine journalists in one of the worst crackdowns against free expression in the country.
"With the latest arrests, Ethiopian authorities are turning the peaceful exercise of free expression into a crime," said CPJ East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes.
On Sunday, a public prosecutor in the capital, Addis Ababa, accused the detainees--editor Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, and bloggers Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu--of working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in the country, according to news reports and local journalists. Tesfalem, Asmamaw, and Zelalem will have their next court hearing on May 7, while the rest will appear in court on May 8, the same sources said. The journalists have not been formally charged with a crime.
The bloggers are members of an independent collective called Zone 9, which publishes news and commentary, according to news reports. Formed in May 2012 in response to the evisceration of the independent press and the narrowing of the space for free expression, the group's name is derived from Kality Prison, the main jail where Ethiopia's political prisoners, including several journalists, are held, reports said. With the motto "We Blog Because We Care," the group has voiced concerns over domestic issues, including political repression and social injustice. The Zone 9 blogs were frequently blocked inside Ethiopia, but gained a following with Ethiopians in the diaspora, according to local reports.
The arrests follow an April 23 announcement on Facebook by the bloggers in which they said they would resume publishing after seven months of inactivity. They had suspended publishing after being harassed by security agents, according to the blog. The day before their arrest, security agents allegedly ordered Natnail to hand over contact details of all Zone 9 members, a request he refused, local journalists told CPJ.
Local journalists said the other detainees--Asmamaw, a senior editor of the private Amharic weekly news magazine Addis Guday, and freelancers Tesfalem and Edom--may have been arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with the Zone 9 journalists. Edom had been approached on several occasions and asked about her relationship to the other Zone 9 journalists and the support they received from outside organizations, the same sources said.
"These are not journalists. Their arrest has nothing to do with journalism, but with serious criminal activities," Getachew Reda, an adviser to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, told Reuters. "We don't crack down on journalism or freedom of speech. But if someone tries to use his or her profession to engage in criminal activities, then there is a distinction there."
"We call on Ethiopian authorities to halt their slide into paranoia and authoritarianism, and instead to allow critical commentary and public debate to thrive," said CPJ's Rhodes. "These nine journalists should be released immediately."
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal did not immediately return CPJ's repeated calls for comment.
The journalists, who were arrested in multiple raids on Friday and Saturday, have been denied access to their family and lawyers and are being held at the Maekelawi federal detention center, according to local journalists. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, interrogators at Maekelawi routinely use torture to extract false confessions from detainees. The Ethiopian government denies the allegations.