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Rights group urges release of detained Ethiopian bloggers

By Tesfa-Alem Tekle

October 7, 2015 (ADDIS ABABA) – Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday called on the court in Ethiopia to acquit and immediately release of four members of Zone 9, an independent blogger group.

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Ethiopian prime minister Haile Mariam Desalegn (Photo: Getty Images)

The call from the French-based press freedom group comes in the wake of a verdict to be made by the Addis Ababa court against the four bloggers in prison.

Three journalists and six bloggers of Zone 9 were arrested in April 2014 as part of a swoop against a group accused of using social media to incite violence among the public.

In an unexpected move, Ethiopian authorities in July released a total of six bloggers and journalists of the Zone 9 group who were arrested at the same time and on the same grounds along with the four bloggers in jail.

Their release came prior to the third international conference on the financing of development in Addis Ababa and coincided with United States president Barack Obama’s visit to the Horn of African nation.

The remaining four members of Zone 9 still in detention are Abel Wabella, Natnael Feleke, Atinaf Berhane and Befekadu Hailu.

According to SRF, the bloggers are facing the possibility of 10 to 15 years behind bars on charges of “working with foreign organizations claiming to defend human rights” and “receiving funding in order to incite the public to violence via social media”

RSF called for a not-guilty verdict that would prevent any future prosecution of the bloggers on similar grounds. Since the release of two of the Zone 9 bloggers in July, RSF claimed the prosecutor has not presented any new evidence against the four still held.

“We urge the court and the authorities to be fair and open with the Zone 9 bloggers,” said Clea Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.

“If there is no solid evidence against them, they should be freed at once and they should be acquitted so that there is no danger of any subsequent prosecution for the same facts” added Kahn-Sriber.

The bloggers are being tried under Ethiopia’s controversial 2009 anti-terrorism law which gave the government sweeping powers to arrest any one considered seditious.

International right groups say the anti-terrorism law is being used to systematically silence critical voices and punish political opponents.

Since the law was passed in 2009, the government had been under fire by right group who accuse authorities of intensifying crackdown on journalists, opposition members and civil society groups.

Zone 9 calls itself as “an informal group of young Ethiopian bloggers working together to create an alternative independent narration of the socio-political conditions in Ethiopia.”

The group, which was established in 2012, is known to be critical of government policy.

Although portrayed as a regional development model, Ethiopia is often criticised for its violations of civil liberties.

Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. According to CPJ research, Ethiopia with at least 12 journalists in detention is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa after Eritrea.

Most of the journalists, CPJ said, are currently being detained on terrorism charges.

During the past few years, threats against critical journalists in Ethiopia have forced dozens of them into exile. Last year, threats related to the 2009 terrorism law also led to closure of six publications.

The country is presently ranked fourth on CPJ’s list of the 10 most censored countries.

(ST)

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