As I write this, I am eerily reminded that in Ethiopia, expressing your views can get you a first class ticket to prison. From April 25 to 26, 2014, nine Ethiopian bloggers and journalists were arrested. As we celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Saturday, they were being detained in Addis Ababa’s notorious central investigation office. Though charges have not officially been filed, the group is accused of “working with foreign human rights activists” and “using social media to destabilize the country”. If prosecuted under Ethiopia’s controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, they could face the death penalty.
The arrests are part of a disturbing trend in Ethiopia, which has frequently ranked as one of the most repressive places for press freedom in recent years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in the past decade, more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world. For those who remain in Ethiopia the possibility of being charged with terrorism for criticizing the government is a real risk. In 2009 when an expansive and ambiguous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was being debated, Human Rights Watch warned that:
If implemented as currently drafted, this law could provide the Ethiopian government with a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy that are deemed supportive of armed opposition activity.
Since the laws’ passing, what has precipitated is exactly as rights groups had predicted. In less than four years, over 200 people had been arrested under the anti-terrorism law and more than 35 journalists and opposition leaders had been convicted of terrorism.
The latest victims of this law seem to be six young professionals that are part of a group of bloggers called Zone 9 and three journalists. The timing of the arrests, ironically, coincided with a visit from U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, who expressed concern for the group in a press conference. Outrage against the arrests is also quickly spreading on social media; from facebook and twitter to a tumbler site. On the Zone 9ers’ website, their defiant motto still reads: “We blog because we care”.
Amongst the journalist arrested last week is Tesfalem Waldeys, a seasoned reporter and once editor of the widely popular Addis Neger newspaper, which became one of the first independent newspapers to shut down after the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Law. While several of his colleagues from Addis Neger fled the country, Tesfalem remained and gained a reputation as a professional and respected freelance journalist.
In 2012 Tesfalem wrote an article entitled, “When Reporting Becomes Terrorism”. Here he describes the crippling effect of the Anti-Terrorism Law on journalism in Ethiopia:
“Fear and self-censorship is rife among Ethiopian journalists. Many journalist friends of mine are frustrated. They don’t see any future on their profession. Some contemplated to live in exile. The few that I spoke to expected to be arrested at anytime soon. No one is sure who will be next on the list.”
Perhaps Tesfalem was so meticulous in his reporting and dedicated to his profession to think that one-day he would be next on the list. If working within the system to change the system is the tempered approach to progress, in Ethiopia—where laws are used for political expediency—there is no reason to believe that one’s integrity will protect you from arbitrary arrest. In the long run, such actions will radicalize even the most committed pacifists and moderates. The Anti-Terrorism Law, in effect, is fueling opposition.
Given the seriousness of the crimes, it puzzles me that a government backed by the largest and most sophisticated security apparatus in sub-Saharan Africa would see a group of bloggers and journalists as a real threat. If social media usage in Ethiopia were as high as in Arab Spring countries or access to independent newspapers common outside of urban areas, perhaps there would be reason for concern. But in a country where only 1.5% of the population uses the Internet and 61% of the adult population cannot read, it is hard to imagine how these writers could, in reality, destabilize the country.
Yet, the recent crackdown demonstrates that governments still fear new ideas, because new ideas challenge the status quo, are infections and cannot be contained in prisons.
In recent years the common narrative of Ethiopia has been about growth and development. Although we should give credit where credit is due, why is it unacceptable to demand more? What is wrong with also expecting the rule of law? And human rights? And free and fair elections? When one speaks about the need for democracy in Ethiopia—or any developing country—people will look askance at you and tell you to worry about democracy after dealing with poverty, famine and HIV/AIDS. They will be quick to label you an idealist or point out that you have been brainwashed by “western ideals”. But, the very notion that poor people, people in developing countries, only aspire for food and basic services is utterly paternalistic and borders on racist.
The threat embodied in Ethiopia’s bloggers, journalists and free thinkers is that they are introducing a radical new idea—the idea of a freer, more democratic country. They represent a generation of young Africans that is daring to demand more from governments whose source of legitimacy is based in the unfortunate poverty of their countries’ populations. This idea, made even more infectious by the imprisonment of the bloggers and journalists, continues to spread in their absence.