Once upon a time, there was a blog

And it was written in Amharic

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia / Ph. Claudio Maria Lerario

Once upon a time, there was a blog. It was written in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, by a team of young journalists and thinkers who wanted to have an open, public conversation about the future of their nation.

It’s not especially easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest country has been ruled by a neo-marxist government (EPRDF — Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front) which overthrew a brutal military dictatorship in 1991, instilling one-party autocratic rule in its place.

Part of EPRDF’s strategy of control is the silencing of dissent. When students protested rigged elections in 2005, the government blocked all SMS traffic for two years, claiming that opposition activists were using SMS to plan their campaigns. (they were. The real issue is that Ethiopia saw opposition political activity as a threat to regime stability).

Ethiopia briefly had a thriving and energetic blogosphere, but government censorship and harassment of bloggers quickly silenced many of those voices. The country’s independent press has been crippled by Ethiopia’s strategy of imprisoning the strongest journalistic voices, including PEN prizewinner Eskinder Nega, in the country’s notorious Kaliti Prison.

Tens of thousands are held in Kaliti prison, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Journalists and other political prisoners are held in Zone 8 of the prison, and they jokingly refer to the rest of the nation, itself in a prison of sorts, as “Zone 9″. Thus the name of the blog: the Zone 9 bloggers are writing from the outer ring of the prison, the nation itself.

Zone 9 member Endalk explains: “In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents. When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.”

Ethiopia sees itself in danger of splitting into rival, warring parts. This fear is not unfounded — Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year war, taking Ethiopia’s seacoast with it. (Sadly, Eritrea is also a one-party state notorious for jailing journalists.) Ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and ethnic Oromo have been seeking independent states — their armed movements, the ODLF and the OLF are seen as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government.

Free Zone 9 Bloggers campaign image by Hugh D’Andrade, remixed by Hisham Almiraat

The Ethiopian government does face a real threat from armed militants. But it has a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist. Consider Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18 year prison sentence.

The Zone 9 bloggers were understandably scared by Nega’s arrest and prosecution, and the blog went silent for over a year. This spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25th, the government responded by arresting 6 members of the blogging team, and three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.

The charges against the bloggers give a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that bloggers traveled out of the country to receive training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a package of Open Source software compiled by Tactical Tech, an organization that helps free speech and journalistic organizations protect themselves from surveillance.

The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone 9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest. These charges give a sense for how hard it is to work on free speech issues in repressive countries.

The blog homepage

Compounding the sadness and frustration is the fact that Ethiopia is a massive recipient of foreign aid, hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is a key military ally to the US, seen as a stable, Christian bulwark against Somalia. Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Obama administration (the President’s statement on Zenawi’s death included a cursory mention of human rights after praising Zenawi’s focus on food security), and there’s been little evidence that the State Department has any plans of getting tough with Ethiopia on issues of free speech or human rights.

This is a hard time to call attention to this situation, we know. It’s an appropriate time to tweet the State Department to demand Israel protect the safety of civilians in Gaza, or to demand that news media cover the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. In asking for help, I don’t want to lessen anyone’s outrage about other injustice, but to ask for help bringing visibility to the plight of people who are otherwise likely to be forgotten in international diplomatic circles.

Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman