Ismail Einashe

“I wanted to break down the fear. I wanted independent media in Ethiopia.” This, said Endalkachew Chala, is why he co-founded Ethiopia’s Zone 9, a bloggers’ collective that saw six of its members jailed in April 2014, along with three other journalists. 

Chala spoke to me from his new home in Eugene, Oregon, where he is now studying for a PhD. He says memories of his old life in Ethiopia, living under a police state, still haunt him. “It felt like a psychological prison living in Addis Ababa.” He was already in the United States when his colleagues were arrested. After being held for months without charge, the writers were eventually charged with terrorism, prompting an international outcry. Five were released in July 2015, just prior to a visit to the country by US President Barack Obama. The remaining four were acquitted of terror charges in October 2015. 

Chala said the bloggers’ acquittal, though long awaited, was faster than he expected. He believes the Ethiopian government was attempting to “give an impression [that the] Ethiopian judiciary is impartial and independent”. 

Founded in May 2012, the Zone 9 group took its name from Ethiopia’s prisons, which are organised into eight zones. Zone 8 is usually reserved for journalists and dissidents. “Ethiopia is Zone 9,” Chala said. “Ethiopia is a big prison.” The blog, written in Amharic, covered political and social issues, including the stories of jailed journalists, which are rarely heard in a country that has no free press. The collective existed only in a digital space; in Ethiopia, discussing such things offline comes with high risks.

Ethiopia has Africa’s fastest-growing economy. However, it is also one of the most closed-off countries on the continent. In a magazine interview in March, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, said, “Ethiopia is an island of stability within the Horn of Africa.” But this ‘stability’ has come at a price. In the past year alone, Ethiopia has been rocked by huge unrest in Oromia state. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been left dead in clashes with security forces, though the government disputes this. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, and constitute about a third of Ethiopia’s 95 million people. This unrest was sparked by an urban development plan to develop Addis Ababa, the capital city that is surrounded by Oromia. Historically the Oromos have complained about economic and political marginislation in Ethiopia. 

Increasingly, the Oromo protests have put a spotlight on Ethiopia’s delicate multi-ethnic federalism, which is fracturing under the weight of protests - there are over 80 ethnic groups in the country and 9 ethnic-based regions. During the recent Rio Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian marathon runner, made international headlines when he raised his hands in an X-shaped gesture over his head to show his solidarity with the Oromo people after crossing the finish line in second place.

Chala said that the international interest piled pressure on the Ethiopian government. “When the Guardian covers you, and when the BBC covers [you], then local news does not cover you, it’s weird,” he said. Though Ethiopia has released the bloggers, it still remains one of the worst abusers of press freedom, often using “security threats” as a means to silence dissent and stifle political opposition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), between 2013 and 2014, more than 40 journalists fled into exile from Ethiopia. 

On the Reporters Sans Frontières World Press Freedom Index 2015, Ethiopia ranks 142 out of 180 countries. According to CPJ, Ethiopia is the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, with a reported 10 journalists behind bars (as of December 2015). The Ethiopian government has also used legislation to silence and arrest critical journalists.

One of those is Soleyana Gebremichale, another Zone 9 blogger, who, like Chala, has now moved to the US. She was charged in absentia, and acquitted in October. Now based in Washington DC, she runs The Ethiopia Human Rights Project, which she says is about giving a “Ethiopian voice” to the human rights struggle and to counter government propaganda of human rights organisations as having a “Western agenda." 

Of her involvement with Zone 9, she said: “Most of us as youths were frustrated, we had nothing to read. Newspapers like the Addis Neger, a critical paper of the government, were shut down.” 

Gebremichale said that after the Arab Spring started in 2010, government officials became fearful of internal dissent. “That’s when the authorities understood the power of the internet. They realized the internet can connect like-minded people,” she said. Ethiopia’s notorious anti-civil society law passed into parliament in 2011 and, in effect, shut down any opposition. “There are no civil society organisations in Ethiopia,” said Gebremichale. “All spaces were closed, the internet was the only way out.” 

Yet internet access is only available to a few. Ethiopia has one of the lowest mobile phone and internet penetration rates in Africa. “Less than 2% have access online despite huge population growth, and there’s only one internet provider,” Chala said. Just a paltry 25% of Ethiopians have access to mobile phones—compare this to Kenya, where at least 40% have internet access and 88% have mobile phones. The Ethiopian state has total monopoly on communications and Ethio-Telecom is the sole provider. 

"The internet has democratised story telling,” said Chala, a welcome antidote from what he says is a “culture of hiding information in Ethiopia”. But the state has retaliated. Chala said that Zone 9 members had their phones tapped and were followed. Access to the Zone 9 blog was blocked.

It had been hoped that 2012 would have been a different turning point. After the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that year, many hoped Ethiopia might open up but his successor Hailemariam Desalegn continues to rule with an iron fist. In the May 2015 elections, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front party and its allies won 100% of seats. There is not one oppositional MP. 

Chala and Gebremichale continue to work from afar. “I have become stateless. My price is exile. I just want to go home,” said Chala. Both will continue to work to prise open Ethiopia’s press. “The key is us,” Gebremichale said, holding onto hope. “The change is in our hands.” 

First published in Index on Censorship:

Ismail Einashe is a contributing editor at Warscapes