On July 17, nearly three months after their arrest, Ethiopia formally charged six bloggers and three journalists with terrorism and “outrages against the constitution,” according to Ethiopian biweekly newspaper The Reporter.
While most media reports focused on the anti-terrorism charges, according to the official charge sheet, the prosecutors alleged the defendants clandestinely organized to overthrow, modify or suspend the Constitution.
In a region marred by cycles of conflict, Ethiopia provides a modicum of stability. A key ally in the U.S. war on terror, Ethiopia receives more than $400 million in aid annually from the United States. However, Washington has largely ignored glaring human rights abuses and ever-tightening restrictions on press freedom, despite much of it being documented in State Department annual reports.
In the prosecutors’ 19-page charge sheet, seven members of the dissident blog and activist group Zone 9 and three reporters are accused of receiving financial, strategic and ideological support from two banned opposition groups, Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). (One blogger, currently in exile, was charged in absentia along with the nine bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia.) Other charges include reporting their activities to the Virginia-based television network ESAT using encrypted communication lines. The prosecutors also said members of the group traveled abroad on numerous occasions to receive what they termed “security training,” including use of Security-in-a-Box, a simple program for protecting computers from malware and browser tracking.
According to a blog post by Zone 9 co-founder Endalkachew Hailemichael, the charges show the “incompetence” and the extent to which Ethiopian authorities have gone "to squash honest, candid and civic-minded young bloggers who have had a trust in the Constitution."
The prosecutors claimed they have witnesses and material evidence to support their allegations — but, citing witness protection laws, listed no witnesses. During a brief court appearance Thursday, the bloggers and journalists told the judge they were forced to sign confessions under duress.
The charges are the latest incident in what has been years of crackdowns on dissent and the freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Since the Horn of Africa country adopted its controversial anti-terrorism legislation in 2009, more than a dozen journalists and hundreds of opposition members have been charged under the law.
At least 41 journalists have fled repression in the past five years alone. The U.S., United Nations and several human rights organizations have said the law has too broad a mandate and is being used to stifle dissent.
Authorities insist this is not the case. In a recent interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn defended the controversial law saying it is "almost similar" to the British anti-terrorism law, echoing his predecessor Meles Zenawi who famously said, "in drafting our anti-terrorism law, we copied word-for-word the very best anti-terrorism laws in the world.”
Even more perplexing, according to Zone 9’s Endalkachew, is the government's effort to link the bloggers to the same diaspora-based political organizations on which these bloggers have heaped a "significant amount of criticism."
"Sometimes the bloggers have been even more critical [of] these political organizations than the government itself," Endalkachew wrote in a blog post. "It is nauseating to be accused of [receiving instructions and ideas from] irrelevant political organizations that have neither ideological nor material relationship with the bloggers."
In fact, Ginbot 7 and the OLF — both of which Ethiopia considers terrorist organizations — have key ideological differences, themselves. The OLF is fighting for greater autonomy for Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group, whereas Ginbot 7 has called for the ouster of the current regime in Addis Ababa, which it considers a dictatorship, and the creation of a democratic Ethiopian state.
In a July 18 statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Ethiopia "to refrain from using anti-terrorism laws as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas." The statement noted Addis Ababa's use of the terrorism law "in previous cases against journalists, activists, and opposition political figures raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law."
The trial for the bloggers and journalists is scheduled to resume Aug. 4.