UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Friday condemned the arrest of nine bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia, warning that the country increasingly was muzzling freedom of expression under the guise of fighting terrorism.
“I am deeply concerned by this recent wave of arrests and the increasing climate of intimidation against journalists and bloggers prevailing in Ethiopia,” Pillay said in a statement.
On April 25 and 26, six members of the blogging collective Zone Nine and three journalists were arrested by police in Addis Ababa, and reportedly are still being held incommunicado.
On Tuesday, Ethiopian authorities denied that the individuals had been arrested because of their media activities, saying they had been detained because they were accused of serious crimes.
Although the exact charges against each of them remain unclear, Pillay’s office said it had received information that they were arrested for “working with foreign human rights organisations and inciting violence through social media to create instability in the country.”
Since January 2012, at least eight journalists have been convicted under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism measures to sentences ranging from five years to life in prison.
Two others, not including the latest detainees, are behind bars awaiting trial.
“The fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organisations,” said Pillay.
“And working with foreign human rights organisations cannot be considered a crime. Over the past few years, the space for dissenting voices has been shrinking dramatically in Ethiopia,” she warned.
Pillay repeatedly has warned Ethiopia that its 2009 anti-terrorism legislation is too vague, saying it evokes a climate of fear and criminalises legitimate human rights activity.
“In its efforts to combat terrorism, the Ethiopian government must comply at all times with its human rights obligations under international law,” she said Friday.
Human rights campaigners accuse Ethiopia of being one of the most restrictive nations in the world when it comes to journalists exercising their profession.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry also called Ethiopia to account during a visit to Addis Ababa.
“They need to create greater opportunities for citizens to be able to engage with their fellow citizens and with their government by opening up more space for civil society,” Kerry told reporters.
Washington is one of Ethiopia’s largest donors, and Kerry urged the government to support a free press to give “greater voice to democracy”.