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Six pro-democracy bloggers, all founders of a group known as ‘Zone9,’ were arrested in Ethiopia last week along with three journalists. The arrests are the latest to raise concerns about freedom of the press and access to civil society in the rapidly developing nation. They come just ahead of a visit to Ethiopia by Secretary of State John Kerry as well as a UN human rights assessment of the country early next month. We talk to colleagues of the jailed bloggers about the move and the larger political landscape ahead of national elections in 2015.
- Endalk Chala co-founder, Zone9 blog; doctoral student, University of Oregon
- Tamrat Negara former Editor, Addis Neger newspaper(Ethiopia)
Tension Grows in Ethiopia
UPDATE: John Kerry has made a statement about the situation in Ethiopia, including the blogger he met there (pictured above) that has since been arrested, part of the growing political unrest in the country.
“We are concerned about any imprisoned journalist here or anywhere else,” Kerry reportedly told journalists as he left a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Read more here .
Six pro-democracy bloggers, all founders of a group known as ‘Zone Nine,’ were arrested in Ethiopia last week along with three journalists. The arrests are the latest to raise concerns about political freedom in the rapidly developing nation. Also at play: On April 30, Oromo students put on non-violent demonstrations against a proposal that would annex some Oromia cities in order to create more land mass for the city of Addis Ababa.
We take a look at the view from the ground in Ethiopia, with photos submitted by our listeners in the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In January, on a visit to Ethiopia, I sat down in Addis Ababa in a hotel with three bloggers. They were all part of a collective with a pro-democracy, pro-constitution message known as Zone 9. Last week two members of that trio, Befekadu Hailu and Abel Wabella were arrested along with four other co-founders of the group. No formal charges have been filed as yet but they are alleged to have been working with a foreign human rights group and using social media to incite violence.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlso arrested recently in Ethiopia were three freelance journalists and groups of Oromo students protesting Addis Ababa's master plan which would impinge upon land long held by that ethnic group, also supporters of the Blue Party, a group comprising young self-described progressives who have become more politically active of late. Here to update us on the situation and put these arrests in a broader context is Tamrat Negara. He is former editor of Addis Neger newspaper in Ethiopia. He is now living in this region. Tamrat, thank you for joining us.
MR. TAMRAT NEGARAThank you for inviting me again, Kojo.
NNAMDIHe joins us here in our Washington Studio. Joining us from studios at the University of Oregon is Endalk Chala co-founder of the Zone 9 blog in Ethiopia and global voices. He is currently a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Endalk Chala, thank you for joining us.
MR. ENDALK CHALAThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us. If you're from Ethiopia give us a call with your take on the lead-up to the elections next year and where these arrests fit into the bigger picture, 800-433-8850, or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Endalk Chala, I'll start with you. You're one of the founding members of Zone 9. Why did you start the group and what's the significance of the name Zone 9?
CHALAWe started because Ethiopia was -- we started in 2012 and we had never had independent voices. And I just know there was one of big newspaper that we had been following. And they forced them out of the country and they shut down the newspaper. And so the online committee was trying to revive a kind of discussion that I just never had in 2009. But, you know, after 2012 we have never had a kind of discussion that we had when Addis Neger was on publication that we've come together. Prior the formation of Zone 9 we had our own blogs individually. Then we've come together and decided to blog together.
NNAMDITamrat, this scenario's perhaps all too familiar to you. Remind us of what brought you to the U.S. from Ethiopia and how -- what Zone 9 was going. Both was building on but also different from what came before in terms of media access in Ethiopia.
NEGARAOkay. Let me start by quoting Martin Luther King's 1960 speech on I Have a Dream. He say, but 100 years later the negro still is not free. One-hundred years later -- and in a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence. What Addis Neger was doing...
NNAMDIThat's your newspaper.
NEGARAYes. What Zone 9 were doing, what Oromo students are doing today is trying to check the cash that was promised by the Ethiopian constitution, nothing else.
NNAMDIThe Ethiopian constitution promised a certain freedom of expression.
NEGARAAbsolutely. There are issues still with the constitution that we can debate about but what happened is we believed, Addis Neger founders, and we tried to work within the constitution, within the legal limits what was promised, freedom of price, freedom of speech and nothing more. But repeatedly the government has proven and shown that it doesn't tolerate. I think the time where we speak, you know, is over. You've seen it. You were in Addis even after me. So you know this better than me almost in a sense, to know the recent story.
NNAMDIWell, I was there more recently than you but Endalk, my understanding, both from the coverage of the arrests and our conversation with the group is that despite what the constitution may say because of harassment and concerns for their safety, they have stopped posting for some time. But in our conversation with Befekadu Hailu, we talked about that that element of fear and whether or not that element of fear was going to stop him and others from Zone 9 from doing what they were doing. Here's what he had to say then in January.
MR. BEFEKADU HAILUThere are always rumors from insiders that we are going to be jailed the next time we are writing something or we are coming of some sort of (unintelligible) . So fear is always there, but you can't help challenging it because, you know, quitting cannot be the solution. We have seen that.
NNAMDIHe says, quitting cannot be the solution. Endalk Chala, is that what prompted them to start writing again?
CHALAYeah, we have been discussing to come back again after kind of six months inactivity. And we've been discussing that whether you have started writing or you have stopped writing, the harassment is going on. And we have decided to come back and write the notes about our disappearance in a very general manner.
CHALAWe don't want to be -- we didn't want to be very specific on our note because we want to keep the conversation going. And we don't want to create a noise. We just want to, you know, a kind of -- have a kind of tolerance for the harassment that we have been receiving just for the sake of the conversation that we had started when we had the blog going on.
NNAMDIWhat was the substance of the conversation about?
CHALAWe had a meeting online from here, and my colleagues from Ethiopia, and we would say that, you know, the surveillance and the harassment has been going on even though we have stopped posting significantly, and why don't we write. So if -- how we -- you know, if we are under surveillance, if we are under harassment so why don't we start writing again and see what happens. And that's why we have come again.
NNAMDITamrat Negara, these are not the only recent arrests of groups attempting to exert power and to even engage with authority in Ethiopia. What's happening with the Oromo student protests and what's happening with members of the Blue Party?
NEGARAEarlier I didn't answer one question. Let me start with that. What was different about Zone 9 and Addis Neger was that Addis Neger was just a traditional media. And therefore we used to write and go back to our offices. And the thing about the Zone 9ers were, they became friends and family of every possible Ethiopian in the social media network. That goes as far as from Australia, Japan ,Middle East and here. That's one of the different quality it has.
NNAMDISo you -- Addis Neger was a traditional newspaper.
NEGARAYeah, Addis Neger was just...
NNAMDIWhat the Zone 9 bloggers told us was that over the course of the years they had lost 76 such traditional newspapers.
NEGARAYes. And they were -- they started online and then that gave them a new kind of platform that makes their voice global, not just local. And to come back to your question, the Oromo students' protest -- the underlying question is the political economical structure of current Ethiopia. Ethiopia currently is under a minority ethnic government in a manner that is unprecedented in Ethiopian history.
NEGARAEthiopian politics have always been ethnicized in one way or the other. But the unique form of this ethnic government was that it structured its economic benefits for its own elite. And Addis Ababa as the capitol city is the perfect place where you want to strengthen your economic stronghold. And by using government state power, the ruling ethnic elite, the Tigrean elite is effectively eradicating everyone out of the economics.
NNAMDIYou're arguing that you feel that the government is composed of elite drawn from the Tigrean ethnic group. The Oromo ethnic group is the largest ethnic group in the country. And the students who have been protesting are largely Oromo. I should mention that we made numerous attempts to reach out to the Ethiopian Embassy here in Washington, D.C. either for a guest or a statement from the government ahead of the conversation. We were ultimately unsuccessful in getting such a response.
NNAMDIAnd by the way, I am asked to remind our listeners that there is a flash flood warning in effect for Montgomery, Md., for most of northern Virginia and Northwest Washington including Adams Morgan, American University and Georgetown. So that's one thing you will need to be paying attention to. We're talking about the arrests that have recently taken place in Ethiopia, which we visited in January. And where among those people arrested were two of the bloggers that we had a conversation with in January that aired during the course of this broadcast.
NNAMDIEndalk Chala, no former chargers have been filed against the group from Zone 9 as yet. What do you know about where your colleagues are being held and what kinds of allegations and trial are they likely facing?
CHALAThey're under custody in Makalawi, the center of Addis Ababa. And Makalawi is one of the notorious places. It's a very torturous place. People who have been in Makalawi had written a lot about it. And we don't know what's going on currently because they're not allowed to be visited by their family. They're not having access to lawyers. So we don't know what's going in Makalawi. So six of our colleagues and three friends of ours, three freelancing journalists and three close friends of Zone 9 are still in custody. And we don't know what's going on there.
CHALAAnd the charge, yeah, the police had requested an extension for further investigation. And I don't know what they investigated as -- or what they investigated for. They have confiscated their laptops and their phones and all the documents that these bloggers have been accumulating. All kinds of literature had been confiscated from their homes. So we're expecting they're going to charge us, including myself and two of my colleagues who are in exile now, charge -- we are expecting to be charged with inciting violence using social media and receiving financial aid from foreign organizations, (word?) organizations.
NNAMDIHave you or any of the bloggers in fact advocated violence at any time in your writings at all?
CHALANo. Our writings are in public. No -- we have been advocating for peaceful struggle, kind of peaceful transformation of the current system. We were campaigning for respect constitution -- we respect the constitution. We've been doing our activities based on the constitution. And we had to have four campaigns asking the Ethiopian government to respect its own constitution. The first one was respect the constitution campaign which was in 2012. So we had lots of campaigns -- four campaigns which asked the government to respect its own constitution.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the phones. Here is Abdi in Washington, D.C. Abdi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ABDIThank you, Kojo, for taking my phone call.
NNAMDIGo right ahead.
ABDIYeah, I mean, I listen to your show most of the time. And then recently I've seen on Twitter going about this 9 bloggers which, you know, in Ethiopia from early days there is no such exercise of freedom. And then all of a sudden the government allows, you know, democracy or whatever. And I'm sorry for my language, but it was never been practiced.
ABDISo when I hear about these 9 bloggers jailed and then the international community Twitter and all that stuff going on, but here like in Ethiopia, about more than eight universities and high schools, you know, going out and then protesting peacefully. The government, I just heard today, killed about six students from the Ambo Oromo region. No one is talking about this but the 9 blogger is such a big deal like people talking about it.
ABDISo I wonder if even in the international community, people are taking sides or why is the Oromo issue not as big as the bloggers? Even when you went you visited the bloggers. I've heard that interview as well. So I'm kind of caught up here saying yes, of course those people right, but how about this big riot and almost been in jail since the creation of Ethiopia?
NNAMDIAllow me to have Tamrat Negara address that issue.
NEGARAYes. I would like to address that as an Oromo and also as an Ethiopian and as a writer and as a citizen of Ethiopia (unintelligible) . Yes, it is true that the Oromo issue usually does get overseen. And this has a lot to do with the fact of authorization. Most of the Oromo people are not in the urban areas which gives them a disadvantage for being online. Even within Ethiopia -- even within Addis Ababa the internet penetration is 1 percent.
NEGARASo I can imagine and I can understand his frustration. At the same time it is a practical reality where these 9 bloggers are members of the online community. And that gives them a kind of slight advantage over -- even though -- over many thousands of students who doesn't have a platform to speak of. That's one thing.
NEGARABut the other issue to go on about it is why did the Oromo protests start now particularly? What this recent master plan will do, according to many analysts, is -- Addis Ababa has always been unfair to its regions as the only big bully town by, you know, expansion. They always -- Addis Ababa always expand on farmer land and it has always been unfair for them -- for the farmers. They don't get proper compensation.
NNAMDISo there's been a history of that.
NNAMDIWhy the protests now?
NEGARAWonderful question. Because the ethnic structure of our politics -- the ruling minority benefits only its own people. Whenever Addis Ababa expands it is not designed and it is not being made in a participatory manner which benefits all.
CHALAEthiopia -- just to add on that, you know, the ruling elites have a lot of real estate investments. And they're expanding at this -- at the expense of indigenous farmers at the outskirts of the city to expand their business of real estate. If you walk all the way in four direction out of Addis, you see that there are flashy buildings being built by real estates. And the owners of these real estates are people who are really connected with the regime.
NNAMDIBut the -- Ethiopia is the U.S.'s strongest ally in that region. And Secretary of State John Kerry is making a visit to Addis Ababa today. What do you make of that timing and what would you like to hear or what have you heard from the U.S. Secretary of State today from Ethiopia's capital?
NNAMDII saw a photograph posted online of the Secretary of State with one of the bloggers who was arrested. Apparently he met him there on a previous visit. So he obviously not only -- and you can see that photo on our website at kojoshow.org -- so he obviously not only knows of the situation, he's actually met some of the people who are being arrested. What is your understanding, Endalk Chala? What have you been hearing about what the Secretary of State has been saying in Ethiopia about this?
CHALAYeah, the Secretary of State and the city parliament are trying to give a kind of, you know, lip service that they commend the arrest of bloggers. And, you know, last year when the anniversary of African union was being celebrated, the 50th year's anniversary of African union being celebrated, John Kerry and the foreign minister of Ethiopia and one of my -- six of the colleagues were in the same room where (unintelligible) we were practicing.
CHALAAnd, you know, it was a kind of -- we were muffled. We were not even allowed at that show to ask questions, critical questions. And, you know, when we raise these kind of critical questions about the incarceration of critical voices before us, we were not allowed. So we have been complaining -- we have been campaigning to hear from the State Department and from John Kerry that our colleagues are being under detention for just saying what they have to say. So this is what's going on.
NNAMDII have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll return to this conversation about the arrests taking place in Ethiopia of bloggers, of students, of members of the Blue Party. But if you have questions or comments give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you think freedom of the press in efforts to shore up civil society should be a larger part of U.S. development aid to Ethiopia, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about what's been taking place in Ethiopia in terms of arrests of people who have been protesting or arguing against policies of the government. Joining us in studio is Tamrat Negara. He's a former editor of Addis Neger newspaper in Ethiopia. He now lives in this region. Joining us from studios at the University of Oregon is Endalk Chala, co-founder of the Zone 9 blog in Ethiopia and Global Voices. He's currently a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon.
NNAMDICan you tell me, Endalk, former charges have not yet been filed but in the past journalists have been charged under antiterrorism laws. When we asked officials about this in Ethiopia, the argument that was made, the argument that we heard repeatedly while we were there is that this is a country that is in a very dangerous neighborhood. And so every precaution must be taken. Do you see any validity to that argument or how do you think that antiterrorism law should be used?
NNAMDIThey always point out that they're neighbors of Somalia, that there's all kinds of stuff going on in the Congo. It's a dangerous neighborhood is what they say, to which you respond, Endalk Chala, how?
CHALAThey're trying to make their argument valid in making that kind of argument. But human rights is very important in fighting terrorism. When you muffle a society, that is a recipe for terrorism. That's a recipe, and we're asking to respect the constitu -- we're not asking not to fight terrorism. And we're against terrorism as bloggers, as citizens of Ethiopia, as citizens of this globe. We are fighting terrorism as well. Not only -- the task of fighting terrorism is not only the duty of the government. It's also the duty of the society.
CHALASo when you try to belittle society based on transparency and based on human rights, respect and owner, you can fight terrorism. You cannot fight terrorism by muffling journalists and associating people who do not have nothing with terrorism. So the argument they're trying to make is to appear valid and to buy partners in fight against terrorism.
NNAMDITamar Negara, we were also told when we asked about freedom of press and free speech issues, we were told by some that our idea of civil society in the west is not the same understanding of it in Ethiopia, that we are essentially comparing apples and oranges. What's your take on that claim?
NEGARAI don't want to answer that question and legitimize that kind of very, very kind of pseudo analysis, to be honest with you. But the earlier question interests me on antiterrorism law because it originated here in Washington, D.C. When -- after 9/11 when the government of the United States decided to fight antiterrorism globally, they came up with the law to fix the laws of other countries. And they -- Ethiopia was picked as one of the candidates.
NEGARAAnd the United States government advised Ethiopia to fix its antiterrorism law and -- so that to serve the American interests of global war on terror. And the consequence is -- I'm sure we've -- you -- there has been a lot of discussion here in the United States' journalist communities as well, how even the freedom of press because of this antiterrorism war on terror is even being questioned here of all places.
NEGARAAnd then you can imagine what a minority dictatorial government in places like Ethiopia could translate and interpret and use it for its own interests. So that is the most important question for me and the most pertinent one, how U.S. in its interest to advance its own interest is muffling, silencing and oppressing other people all over the world.
NNAMDIIn other words you're saying that because of the U.S.'s government friendship with the Ethiopian government, because of their alliance that the U.S. is not only overlooking what the Ethiopian government is doing, but by doing so tacitly approving of it?
NNAMDIOn therefore to Weston in Washington, D.C. Weston, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WESTONHey, Kojo, thank you for giving me a chance. I just wanted to say a quick thing. You know the current Oromo student protest that's going in the major cities of (word?) joined by other, which is (word?) which is the communities. And the government deployed special forces which is they (unintelligible) state police and they deployed a special force called the (word?) and they, you know, torturing and, you know, trying to hold the community and do the students like targeted them, you know. This is a history of like 2 and 100 years ago targeting every -- or almost bad as trying to be like coming out to the community (unintelligible) . And I don't see any, like, outside or inside media for the Oromos (unintelligible) Ethiopia's communities are paying a close attention to it. And then I went to the...
NNAMDIWell, I do have to tell you that this story has been covered in the Wall Street Journal. It's been covered in the New York Times. It's been covered on the BBC. So the story is getting out. But do you think that as a result of that coverage, there's going to be any greater scrutiny of Ethiopia, Tamrat?
NEGARANo, there won't be. The only time the international community would start to recognize there is a crisis is after it's blown. And I fear given the political economic structure of Ethiopia, similarity to Syria where the Alawites are the minority and was the economics and the military and the intelligence and the police power, the same was the Tigreans in Ethiopia. When the crisis blows up, it will be too late.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to include Negusa in Silver Spring, Md. in this conversation who apparently begs to differ. Negusa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEGUSAThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. Ethiopia as a nation is really in critical situation, as you have describe internally as well as surrounded by hostile environment. But in general, the internal situation is not that grave. These people discussing with you and other are just using the situation as the case for an asylum. This has been normal in this are area that people coming from (word?) a political case that actually they want to live and work in U.S. So they have to make a case.
NNAMDINegusa says the situation in Ethiopia is not that bad that those of you who are protesting the situation are simply using it as an excuse to come to the United States because political asylum is an easier way presumably to get to the United States than through other channels. How would you respond to that, Endalk Chala?
NNAMDIWe only have about two minutes left, or less than two minutes.
CHALAOkay. I came here as a student. I'm on my student visa. I am a doctoral student here. And, you know, there are people who have been forced out of Ethiopia just for the sake of being dissident. And, you know, we don't have an option other than running away because I don't want to reject people who have run away feeling, you know, persecution.
CHALAMyself and my colleagues are -- have been in different countries and they could have asked for asylum or sought an asylum. But they get back home to do their work. So they have been doing human rights work for the last two years and they have been traveling abroad. And they could have remained abroad if that was their intention.
NNAMDITamrat Negara, we're almost out of time. What do you feel all of this has to do with the election coming to Ethiopia in 2015?
NEGARAThe government is trying to prepare its way and silencing any kind of organized movement. But I think it's fear is coming to the worst.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Tamrat Negara is former editor of Addis Neger newspaper in Ethiopia. He is now living in this region. Endalk Chala is a co-founder of the Zone 9 blog in Ethiopia and Global Voices. He's currently a doctoral student in the school of journalism at the University of Oregon. As we said, we tried to get the Ethiopian government -- the embassy to join us, but we were not able to succeed in doing that.
NNAMDII want to remind you of the notice we gave earlier, flash flood warning is in effect for Montgomery, Md., most of Northern Virginia and Northwest D.C. including Adams Morgan, American University and Georgetown. So you want to be aware of that. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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