In April 2014, Ethiopian authorities arrested six bloggers affiliated with the Zone 9 collective. The bloggers–Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu–were charged with terrorism.
The Zone 9 blogging collective was formed in May 2012 in response to the evisceration of the independent press and the narrowing of space for free expression. The name, “Zone 9,” is derived from the zones in Kality Prison, the main jail where Ethiopia’s political prisoners, including several journalists, are held. While Kality Prison is organized into eight different zones, the bloggers refer to the entire country as “Zone 9” because of Ethiopia’s lack of democratic freedoms, one of the bloggers told CPJ.
The collective is made up of nine bloggers–the six named above, and Soleyana S Gebremichael, Endalk Chala, and Jomanex Kasaye, all of whom are in exile. Soleyana has been charged in absentia.
In July 2015, weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country, Ethiopian authorities released Mahlet and Zelalem.
The Zone 9 bloggers were arrested along with three other journalists–editor Asmamaw Hailegeorgis and freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, who were later released. The initial charges against the group included working with international human rights organizations and taking part in email encryption and digital security training. The group was subsequently charged with terrorism.
Since 2009, when Ethiopia’s anti-terror law was implemented, the government has used the sweeping legislation to imprison more than a dozen critical journalists, according to CPJ research. In 2012, blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison and Woubshet Taye to 14 years, both on terrorism charges. CPJ’s 2014 prison census found that Ethiopia was the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world, with at least 17 journalists behind bars. Ethiopia also ranked fourth on CPJ’s 2015 list of the 10 Most Censored Countries.
With the motto “We Blog Because We Care,” the Zone 9 collective has voiced concerns over domestic issues, including political repression, corruption, and social injustice. The collective’s posts were frequently blocked inside Ethiopia, but gained a following with Ethiopians in the diaspora, according to local reports. Their posts on Facebook solicited some 12,000 responses a week, reaching 200,000 during a four-part “campaign” they ran on Facebook.
By awarding the Zone 9 bloggers with its International Press Freedom Award, CPJ recognizes the important role that bloggers play in environments where traditional media are weak or have been all but shuttered by financial hardship and direct or indirect state attacks.