Everywhere’s a Prison

Zone 9 Bloggers, Grant Awarded 2015

Ethiopian news consumers © 2011 Tom Cochrem/Getty Images
Ethiopian news consumers © 2011
Tom Cochrem/Getty Images

I was in Nairobi, Google-chatting to one of my fellow Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia when he told me: “The police are here for me, please call my family and let them know.” And then he went offline. I started calling the others, but no one answered.

It turned out the police had arrested six bloggers, as well as three journalists. I escaped, another blogger was in the US, and a third was outside Addis Ababa and he managed to flee.

Growing up in Addis, we listened to Voice of America in Amharic, and my dad bought several newspapers every day. He was part of a political movement, then he was imprisoned for four years and after that he stayed away – it was too dangerous to be involved in politics.

I worked as a lawyer providing legal aid to women caught up in court cases, trying to get a divorce, domestic violence, that kind of thing. This job let me travel all over the country; I liked my community work. The government passed a law limiting foreign funding for human rights work, which forced us to close these programs. I was so angry, I thought, maybe I should start speaking out.

We couldn’t discuss issues in the traditional media because only a few media houses remained after the 2009 election. So we started Zone 9, an online collective, under the motto: “We blog because we care.” Our first campaign was “Respect the Constitution” – we urged the government to follow the rules they had created, so we could position ourselves as moderate but critical voices.

The government passed a law limiting foreign funding for human rights work, which forced us to close these programs. I was so angry, I thought, maybe I should start speaking out.

We took our name from a famous Ethiopian prison, Kality, which has eight zones. We heard the inmates call the outside world “Zone 9” – it’s beyond the walls, but it’s still a prison, because in Ethiopia our rights are limited.

We thought our friends would be released after a couple of days of questioning, but after 87 days in detention everyone was charged with terrorism. I was charged in absentia, so I can’t go home – I live in Washington, DC and I’m working on a campaign to #FreeZone9Bloggers.

We know they cannot get a fair trial so we’re trying to highlight the issue. The US and Britain are the two biggest bilateral donors of aid to Ethiopia, so they should say clearly that such behavior is not acceptable from a partner government. Is that really too much to ask?


Soleyana S. Gebremichael is a blogger for the Zone 9 collective, exiled from Ethiopia and living in Washington, DC.

Threats against journalists around the world are growing. In the first half of 2015, Human Rights Watch published reports on media crackdowns in Ethiopia (Journalism is Not a Crime), Afghanistan (Stop Reporting or We’ll Kill Your Family), and Libya (War on the Media). The good news: the Internet has made speech harder to control, and in many countries, private media have sprung up to challenge the old state-run channels. The bad news: governments are responding with harsh new laws, and sometimes violence. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at HRW.org.
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