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Earlier this year, six pro-democracy bloggers, all founders of a group known as ‘Zone9,’ were arrested in Ethiopia along with three journalists. Last week, formal charges were filed against the group under the country’s anti-terrorism law, alleging they have ties to an opposition group known as Ginbot 7. We talk to a colleague of the jailed bloggers and find out what the charges mean for U.S.-Ethiopia relations ahead of the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit next month.
- Richard Downie Africa Program Deputy Director and Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Endalk Chala co-founder, Zone9 blog; doctoral student, University of Oregon
The Zone 9 Story
We first met some members of Zone 9, a collective with a pro-democracy, pro-constitution message,earlier this year.
In January 2014, Kojo visited Ethiopia and sat down in Addis Ababa in a hotel with three Zone 9 bloggers.
April 2014: Two members of that trio, Befekadu Hailu and Abel Wabella, were arrested along with four other co-founders of the group and three journalists.
April 30, 2014: A week after the arrests, we talked with their colleagues about the country’s political environment. 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.
Our listeners in Ethiopia sent us these photos of the growing conflict.
July 2014: Formal charges are filed against the group.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the controversy over suspensions of pre-K kids in Washington D.C. and around the nation. But first, in January on a visit to Ethiopia, I sat down in Addis Ababa hotel -- in an Addis Ababa hotel to interview three bloggers, all part of a collective with a pro-democracy, pro-constitution message known as "Zone 9." In April, two members of that trio, Befeqadu Hailu and Abel Wabela, were arrested along with four of the cofounders of the group and three journalist associates.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFormal charges against them were just filed late last week. And as suspected, they're facing trial under the country's anti-terrorism proclamation, a move the government calls necessary. A move critics call a bid to stifle opposition voices before elections next year. Here to bring us up to speed on the latest developments is Endalk Chala. He is cofounder of the Zone9 blog in Ethiopia and Global Voices. He's currently a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. He joins us by phone from San Francisco. Endalk Chala, thank you for joining us.
MR. ENDALK CHALAThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd also joining us by phone is Richard Downie. He's deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program. Richard Downie, thank you for joining us.
MR. RICHARD DOWNIENice to be with you.
NNAMDIIf you happen to be new to this issue, you can go to your website, kojoshow.org, where we have a timeline for what's been happening with Zone9 over the past six months. If you're interested in joining the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you been following this story? Tell us what you think of this latest development. You can also send us email to email@example.com, or a tweet @kojoshow. Endalk, when we last spoke in late April, most of the colleagues you started Zone9 with were in jail, awaiting charges. The charges finally came last week. What have they been formally accused of?
CHALAThe charges are really very serious charges that we actually have been expecting that the government is trying to come up with some kind of serious charges. But they have really done a kind of U-turn on the accusations. Earlier, immediately after the detention of my colleagues, they were saying that we have been collaborating with human-rights organizations -- foreign human-rights organizations and we have violated the charities and societies law, another controversial law which was passed in 2009.
CHALAAnd now they have come up with a new kind of allegations that we have connections with different outlawed political organizations, which we were equally critical of with the government. And we have also written a lot of criticism and commentaries regarding all those political oppositions, which based in Diaspora.
CHALASo they have tried to come up with something which is really amazing and which is really baffling, because they should have understand that these two political organizations called Ginbot 7 and OLF had their own ideological (word?) and no one can reconcile two ideological hostile political organizations and work with them to unseat the government.
NNAMDIRichard Downie, one of the organizations that Endalk Chala is talking about is Gibot 7. We're familiar with Zone9. We're not that familiar with Ginbot 7. What can you tell us about the group and what affiliation with it, whether close or loose, means for the Ethiopian government?
DOWNIEWell, it's a movement that was established back in 2008, a broad-based political movement working for regime changes -- a change of the government in Ethiopia. And importantly, it didn't rule out the use of military means to achieve that objective. And for those reasons, the group has fallen foul of the government's anti-terrorism law. It was thought that some members of the group are operating inside Ethiopia. But the government has done a pretty effective job in going after anyone suspected of involvement in this group. And they're now really a group that tends to operate among the Diaspora.
DOWNIEBut it's very, very hard to gauge whether -- the extent to which this group is a legitimate political opposition or a violent, as the Ethiopian government would portray it, a violent terrorist group. Because really all opposition in Ethiopia to the government has been delegitimized.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you're from Ethiopia, give us a call with your take on the lead up to the elections next year and where you think these arrests fit into the bigger picture. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Endalk, you indicated earlier that your group of bloggers has criticized Ginbot 7. But I will ask you again, and this time directly, does your group have any ties, formal or informal, to Ginbot 7?
CHALAAbsolutely no. We don't have any kind of connections with any kind of political organizations. We're in a strictly civic-minded -- strict civic-minded individuals, which aspire to bring public discourse. And we have never had any kind of connections with any kind of political organizations.
NNAMDIWell, the prime minister of Ethiopia, in a recent interview with a BBC reporter, the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was asked about the Zone9 bloggers just before they were charged. And here is his response.
PRIME MINISTER HAILEMARIAM DESALEGNLook, I suggest that you shouldn't be connected with the terrorists. If you have any connection with terrorists, don't think that the Ethiopian government will let you free. The thing is, whether you are a journalist or a medical doctor or a teacher, whatever profession you have, I think you have to work according to the ethics of the profession. But if you go beyond that and if you have any connection with terrorist groups and if you want to act, you know, serving these terrorist groups and work for them, then don't think that the government will stop doing anything.
NNAMDIRichard Downie, apart from the fact that the prime minister seemed to be implying a threat to the BBC correspondent who was interviewing him, the prime minister has said that these groups are part of a terrorist network involving neighbor and rival Eritrea, and thus cannot be tolerated. Can you put this in a national security context for us? Is there something to this notion?
DESALEGNWell, certainly it's true that Ethiopia has had to contend with multiple internal security problems over time, particularly in the Ogaden region, for example, where there's a large ethnic Somali population, and the Oromo region, which is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The problem is though that by portraying any opposition as terrorists, it's very hard to be able to weigh the extent of this threat. And really, we're in a bit of a quandary in terms of assessing of the threat for the very fact that journalists are prevented -- any independent journalists are prevented from visiting these areas and reporting on what's going on there.
DOWNIEAnd you know, this is where the anti-terrorism proclamation has such a pernicious effect on independent journalism because, you know, when groups like the collective that you're talking to this morning even conducts an interview with a group like Ginbot 7, then it falls foul of the anti-terrorism...
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt you there because what you seem to be saying, and I want to make sure that this is what you are saying, is that if, as a reporter, you are trying to cover the situation in Ethiopia, and you, as a reporter, interview people associated with Ginbot 7, whether you are a journalist or a blogger, the anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia is so broad that that interview can be interpreted as aiding and abetting a terrorist organization?
DOWNIEThat's exactly what I'm saying. And it's been used with pretty great effect towards groups like the Zone9 bloggers and other journalists as well, for that matter. And it's for that -- these reasons that Ethiopia is really a place where independent journalists find it incredibly hard to operate. It's the second worst jailer of journalists on the African continent. Only Eritrea, it's next-door neighbor has a worse record on that front. And most journalists in Ethiopia have been forced into exile, at least those who want to report independently on political issues in the country.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you think freedom of the press and efforts to shore up civil society should be a larger part of U.S. development aid to a country like Ethiopia, considered an ally. 800-433-8850. Endalk, your colleagues are not the first to face charges like these. How have journalists who have faced similar charges previously fared?
CHALAEarlier, as we have tried to mention that, you know, journalists -- Ethiopian journalists are in exile. Most of them are in exile. The others are in prison, like my colleagues. They have been -- journalists have been trying to report independently and they've been trying to have a kind of media which other countries have and have a kind of, you know -- strictly speaking, they may have their own professional problems. But they don't have anything to do with, you know, terrorism.
CHALAAnd you know, there is this (word?) saying called (speaks foreign language) which could be translated as, Oh, I'm a -- don't give me an excuse to eat me. So it's a kind of a reason and a rationalization that terrorism has become for the Ethiopian government that they have tried to eat, you know, eat anyone who has tried to be as critical as possible. And we have never had any, as I told you, we have never had any kind of connections with any form of political organizations. And I don't know any other journalists who had connections with political organizations.
CHALASo it's the kind of reasons which have become really tiresome, that the Ethiopian government is trying to employ, to erase and to accuse journalists. So I think Ethiopian journalists had tried their best to be as professional as possible, and they're being accused of terrorists (sic) .
NNAMDIWhat are you hearing about how your colleagues are being treated and whether they've got access to representation?
CHALAYou know, after almost two months, they have had access only a week before week, yes. A week before last week, they have had access to their family and to their lawyer. But before that they have never had access to their family. And now they have tried -- they have get transferred from Maekelawi where it's a very highly-populated detention center. Because after our, you know, my colleagues' arrest, there are other political-party members being detained in the same center called Ma-ekelawi. But my colleagues have been transferred to other outskirts of Addis Ababa, to Ma-ekelawi to Kalithi (sp?) and to Galindo (sp?) .
CHALASo they have had access only last week. And they have been trying to tell us that they have had a really bad time when they were in Ma-ekelawi. They have got lots of tortures.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to go to Judy in eastern Maryland. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDYHi. Thank you for having my call. I was wondering, you'd mentioned whether or not we should, you know, incorporate some insistence of the American government's involvement in helping to curb the political climate for bloggers and opposition groups in Ethiopia. Well, could we consider America somewhat complicit in the involvement?
JUDYI mean, we have the administration saying that they want to pull out of these places like other -- in the Middle East and in the Horn of Africa. They want to pull all the troops out and rely on allies -- their broadly put allies in the Horn to stabilize terrorism and therefore kind of giving the license for the governments to -- under the -- in fact terrorism laws get the support of countries like the United States and the UK in not just capturing but illegal extraditions and involvement in activities in jailing opposition groups promoting their own interests under the guides of antiterrorism.
NNAMDIYou bring up two issues which I would like Richard Downie to address. Richard Downie, the first being that the U.S. is allied with Ethiopia in what it sees as its own interest against possible acts of terror coming from places like Somalia. What does that imply in terms of how the U.S. is somewhat restricted in approaching what -- or seem to be violations of freedom of expression by a government like Ethiopia?
DOWNIELook, Ethiopia highlights the challenges that policymakers and diplomats have. It's a very complicated bilateral relationship. On the one hand, Ethiopia is a helpful ally to the United States. On the security fronts it's provided peacekeepers to deal with insecurity in neighboring states such as Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. It allows (word?) to operate from its territory. So it's a useful security partner.
DOWNIEIt's also an important economic partner as well. And there's the economic picture in Africa that's going to be trumpeted at the forthcoming U.S. Africa summit. Ethiopia's made great strides in the development front in recent years. But at the same time on the opposite side of the table there's a very complicated challenging discussion about democracy governments and human rights. And let's face it, Ethiopia is one of the most repressive autocratic governments in the African continent. So the U.S. has to juggle these different strands of the relationship.
DOWNIEAnd certainly human rights activists would argue that it's that third part of the relationship, the democracy and human rights part which tends to get neglected or understated in the relationship.
NNAMDIJudy I think mentioned extradition in her question. There was a very controversial extradition from Yemen from one of the leaders of Ginbot 7 who is a British citizen but who was nevertheless extradited from Yemen back to Ethiopia where he had already been tried and I think convicted in absentia of terrorism. Is that kind of problem also likely for the U.S. that Ethiopia can request that the U.S. extradite individuals from this country back to Ethiopia who it feels are affiliated with terrorists? Richard.
DOWNIEWell, certainly it's a potential risk (unintelligible) caused a lot of controversy back in the UK, (unintelligible) as you mentioned. And the UK is also a very, very big development partner to Ethiopia. We can see potential risks in the United States obviously with its huge Ethiopian diaspora. But, you know, these issues are exactly the sort of thing that causes headaches for diplomats here in Washington.
DOWNIEAnd I think that the very fact that you saw the arrests of the "Zone 9" bloggers just a matter of days before Secretary of State John Kerry visited Ethiopia shows that really when it comes to democracy and human rights, the Ethiopian government is not really that willing to listen to what the United States has to say on the subject.
NNAMDIEndalk Chala, is that something you are concerned about? Another of the bloggers we interviewed Soliana Shimeles is no longer in Ethiopia. Do people like you and her fear that somehow or the other you can be extradited back to Ethiopia?
CHALAYeah, that's my fear because my friend has tried to communicate with me who are in detention that we shouldn't travel to Africa. Because, you know, there is this line of connections -- secret line of connections that the government had been trying to get other political activists from Kenya. And they have also done it previously from South Sudan with former Gambila (sp?) regional state leader, who is a Norwegian citizen.
CHALAIt's not only under (unintelligible) not the first time has been legally extradited to Ethiopia. There have been a lot of activists. For example in Kenya, two political activists (unintelligible) activists had been extradited. And they have faced long term prison sentences in Ethiopia. So they have been trying to do this. And it's very really tricky to travel to Africa where there are these unclear connections with different African states. It's very difficult for us.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. 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. Richard Downie is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If you're trying to find out more about this issue, you can go to our website kojoshow.org. There you'll find a timeline for what's been happening with Zone 9 over the past six months.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the controversy over suspensions of pre-K kids in D.C. and around the nation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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