On the 13th of November, the city of Nijmegen hosted a public debate on the shrinking space for civil society and the challenges faced when defending human rights. It was organized by Amnesty international together with the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs (BZ) and the Netherlands Platform for Human Rights (BMO). The focus of this evening was restrictions on freedom of expression both offline and online, in Ethiopia.
Claire Beston, Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International, discussed about the Ethiopian restrictive legislation on civil society and freedom of expression. She also present an overview on developments following the controversial elections of 2005,in which the Ethiopian government introduced a number of measures aimed at restricting freedom of expression and association. Moreover there has been a marked development of the Ethiopian state’s digital surveillance technology, in line with the rapid increase of internet access and use across the region. The arrest of nine bloggers and journalists in recent months highlights the deteriorating condition of freedom of expression in the country.
An exile blogger Soliyana Shemeles member of Zone 9, a bloggers group shared her experiences working in highly restrictive environment via Skype. Zone 9 is a collective of bloggers and social media activists from Ethiopia, established by journalists and intellectuals. The name refers to the ‘virtual imprisonment’ of Ethiopians, the ninth zone of the Kaliti Prison in the capital Addis Ababa that extends well beyond its walls. With the slogan ‘we blog, because we care’, a public conversation about the future of the country is initiated. However, this initiative is not welcomed by the government, and six of them were arrested in April 2014, together with three other independent journalists. They are charged with terrorism. At this moment, Atnaf Berahane, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, and Zelalem Kibret, (and the three journalists, Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, and Asmamaw Hailegiorgis) are still being detained. Their trial started on the 4th of November (after being re-adjourned ten times). They stand accused of working with foreign human rights organizations and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media.
A similar personal challenge was detailed by Girma Tesfaw an Ethiopian journalist, writer and poet based between Kampala, Uganda and Ljubljana, Slovenia. He stated the Ethiopian government has long been hostile to independent media. In recent years this attitude has hardened the government compares media activity with terrorism. In 2010, Girma fled from Ethiopia following the independent weekly political newspaper Addis Neger, he works for, was closed down by the government.
The event was also presented opportunity for examining the role of donor governments; the Dutch government in particular, on their contribution to increasing the space for civil society and journalists. At the end participants raised concern about the muted reaction to the situation due to some security and economic priorities. And they pledge to do their part in defending freedom of expression and civil society cause.