The last of the Zone 9 Bloggers are finally free from jail, after nearly 18 months of detention for simply speaking out online. All the bloggers were acquitted of terrorism charges by the Ethiopian courts; one blogger, Befeqadu Hailu was found guilty of a single charge of “inciting violence” as a result of a confession made during his detention. He was released on bail last Wednesday. Given the time he has already served, he is unlikely to return to jail.
The victory of the bloggers over these baseless accusations of terrorism is a relief to everyone concerned: their friends, family, and their extended network of supporters around the world. However, it will not undo the months each of them unjustly spent in jail, in often horrendous conditions, isolated from their family and friends.
While Zone 9 bloggers are free, the Ethiopian government’s continues to threaten and incarcerate journalists and online speakers. According the Committee to Protect Journalists, 57 media professionals have fled Ethiopia in the last five years. All of Ethiopia’s commercial free press has been shuttered. Online, exiled media, and local citizen journalists have taken up some of its responsibilities but at great personal risk. Exiles are harassed and spied on, as our ongoing case Kidane v. Ethiopia demonstrates. Domestic writers continue to be accused of terrorism and thrown in jail for their work, including the journalist Eskinder Nega who on Friday spent his 15000th day in prison, four years into an 18 year jail sentence.
Diplomatic pressure from Ethiopia’s allies, including the United States, played its part in the Zone 9 case. But these campaigns are reactive, and can only help speakers who are well-known outside the country. What broader commitment could Ethiopia’s allies and business partners advocate for in Ethiopia, that could concretely make a difference to free expression in that country?
In the Zone 9 case, the heart of the prosecution revolved around Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. This law presents the harshest of penalties (each blogger faced up to ten years imprisonment) for the vaguest of offenses.
Ethiopia’s allies could certainly pressure the Desalegn regime to roll back the law. Unfortunately, the political cove—indeed the very mode—for the Anti-Terrorism Declaration comes from the domestic policies of those same countries. Teddy Workneh, a fellow at the University of Oregon, observes that Ethiopa’s anti-terrorism laws, which include broad definitions of terrorist support and weak protections against pervasive surveillance, borrow their structure from other post-911 laws in Europe and the Americas. That means that without legal reform of their own anti-terrorism legislation at home, countries like the United States can only weakly urge Ethiopia to “to refrain from using its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas,” rather than reject it outright.
There is, however, one step that every country critical of Ethiopia’s treatment of Internet users and journalists could take. Prosecutors in the Zone 9 case used the bloggers’ possession of digital security manuals, including guides to using encryption to protect communications, as evidence that they were involved in terrorist activities. International government organizations like the United Nations, the OSCE, as well as the U.S. State department have all stated that encryption and secure communications are vital to free expression, or offered or funded digital security trainings to journalists.
Foreign governments that support these initiatives need to make it clear to allies like Ethiopia that the use of encryption and efforts to improve the security of one’s communications are not indicators of terrorist intent, but part and parcel of the modern journalist’s (or blogger’s) toolkit.
They could begin now by raising this matter in another case now passing through the Ethiopian courts: that of Zelalem Workagegne, Yonatan Wolde, Abraham Solomon, and Bahiru Degu. According to their colleagues, these Ethiopians are being detained on terrorism charges primarily because of an invitation they received to take part in a digital security training session outside of Ethiopia.
Ethiopian prosecutors are trying to turn the responsible practices of any journalist, blogger or concerned Internet user into evidence of terrorism. The international community needs to step forward and make clear that this case, and others like it, are as unacceptable as any other attack on the Ethiopian media. The Zone 9 Bloggers are free, but no more Ethiopians should face the ridiculous accusations simply for caring to protect their own online communications.