When Blogging is a Crime

As the global handwringing around freedom of expression continues unabated, with everyone from Pope Francis to Hollywood celebrities weighing in, a group of bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia is facing their 266th day in detention. In April 2014, six bloggers and three journalists were arrested and charged on suspicions of supporting and inciting terrorism.

The 2009 anti-terrorism law under which the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists are charged is a sweeping piece of legislation which essentially gives the government free reign to silence any speech it deems to support or incite terrorism, which itself is broadly, loosely defined. At the time the law was passed, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists had written to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, urging him to amend it, as the law effectively “criminalize[s] independent political coverage and infringe on press freedom as guaranteed by the Ethiopian Constitution.” Today, Ethiopia is the world’s 4th largest jailer of journalists in the world, behind China, Iran and Eritrea.
The Amharic-langugage Zone 9 blog is indeed a political outlet, but hadn’t been active for some time. When the group announced its plans to resume activities, the government cracked down and arrested the group members – that was in April 2014, days prior to John Kerry’s visit to Africa, which included a stop in Ethiopia. At the time, UN Dispatch asked whether Secretary Kerry’s trip would be an opportunity to voice some concerns about human rights – while he did raise the issue of press freedom, Secretary Kerry’s comments were milquetoast, and clearly did not affect Ethiopia’s continued imprisonment of the journalists.
As of today, the trial for the Zone 9 bloggers and journalists has been adjourned for the 16th time. A few months ago, the defense lawyers successfully requested that the prosecution clarify the terrorism charges, since the original charges did not specifically lay out in what way the bloggers and journalists were alleged to have been engaged in supporting or advancing terrorism. Meanwhile, the two female bloggers involved have been reporting difficult incarceration conditions, and none of the journalists or bloggers have been granted bail.
It is very easy to forget about the Zone 9 bloggers, which appears, on the face of it, to be a purely Ethiopian issue. But the ability for the government to detain and charge any group or individual it deems to be even remotely involved in loosely-defined “terrorism” is the result of a growing trend of diminishing freedoms justified by the fight against terrorism. We recently wrote about how Kenyan lawmakers are also passing similar, restrictive laws. As the world continues to find ways to confront terrorism, we have to remain vigilant: indeed, too often the cloak of “anti-terror” efforts is used to justify unacceptable restrictions on freedom.