The Addis Ababa court that is trying the four members of the Zone 9 blogging collective who are still detained is due to issue a verdict when the 37th hearing in their trial is held on 8 October. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for their acquittal and immediate release.
Arrested in April 2014 under the 2009 anti-terrorism law, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabella and Natnail Feleke are facing the possibility of 10 to 15 years in prison 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.”
The two other members of the collective and three journalists who were arrested at the same time and on the same grounds were released in July after the justice ministry decided to drop the charges against them without further legal justification.
While it welcomed their release at the time, the withdrawal of charges ordered by the justice ministry could be challenged in future before the courts, according to a local observer.
RSF therefore calls 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, 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.”
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 collective’s name alludes to the eight detention zones in Addis Ababa’s notorious Kality prison (where human rights defenders and journalists are held).
The blog was blocked by the authorities within Ethiopia soon after its creation in 2012 but remained accessible abroad and the group continued to post information and comments on social networks. Because of constant harassment by the authorities, they suspended activity seven months before their arrests, which occurred immediately after they announced that they were going to resume blogging.
There has been a dramatic decline in the number of media outlets in Ethiopia, which is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Many reporters and editors with privately-owned print media fled the country in 2014 after being threatened by the authorities. Prosecutions of journalists under the 2009 anti-terrorism law. which provides for long jail terms, have been almost systematic.