Today marks four years since journalist Eskinder Nega was arrested in Ethiopia under sweeping anti-terrorism legislation, which has also been used to arrest other Ethiopian writers and bloggers such as the Zone 9 collective. PEN American Center spoke to two of the Zone 9 bloggers, Soleyana Gebremicheal and Endalkchew Chala (who also goes by Endalk Chala) about the state of free expression, the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, digital freedom, and the future of free expression in Ethiopia. Both Ms. Gebremicheal and Mr. Chala live in exile and were tried in absentia along with their colleagues.

You both still work on the issue of free expression in Ethiopia, but how have your experiences and those of your colleagues affected your work?

Gebremicheal: When we started Zone 9, before the arrest in which so many other journalist colleagues were arrested, exiled, or intimidated, we knew it would be dangerous, but the repression we had seen around did not affect our content, the issues that we raised, etc. But after the arrest, we were focused on advocacy for the release of our friends (which affected the usual writing of article and campaigns). It also forced us to self-censor our content, so as not to affect any legal process and any political decision.

Chala: I need to raise one critical point that might help put the status of freedom of expression in a broader context. I think the Ethiopian government and to a large extent the society understands the people’s right to freedom of expression as a privilege, which the government of Ethiopia grants for the people upon its will. This dystopian kind of social reality has been created in Ethiopia through relentless government propaganda using highly controlled private and public arenas of expressions for more than four decades. As this context makes clear, the unfortunate arrest, torture, and endless fake trial of my friends and colleagues in Zone 9 reflects both the historical trends and the awful spirit the Ethiopian government has regarding freedom of expression.

Recently, I’ve started to think of the ongoing online campaign about the Zone 9 bloggers as a natural extension of the activism we started three years ago. Before their arrest, we wrote articles about freedom of expression, conducted online campaigns, and promoted discussion about freedom of expression in Ethiopia, because at Zone 9 we strongly believe that freedom of expression is a gateway to the basics of human rights. So I believe the arrest of my friends has intensified the campaign for freedom of expression in Ethiopia. I think the brutal arrest of my friends has cemented my belief that we need to work even harder to create an environment for people to learn to resist the incursion of the government or society on freedom of expression.

On top of the arrests and imprisonment, what additional pressures and harassment do you feel is being directed towards you or your colleagues by the government?

Gebremicheal: Torture during detention is one of the pressures that our friends have gone through. By extending the case indefinitely, the government has also made us very aware that we aren’t able to affect a good outcome. Online communication and phone conversation surveillance are the other threats I feel whenever I communicate with people in Ethiopia.

Chala: The entire process, from the arrest of the bloggers to their “court proceedings” marked by long periods of investigatory detention, forced confessions, and repeated adjournment of trial. The bloggers have gone through brutal interrogation, pro-government media and government officials have proclaimed the bloggers as criminals, violating the bloggers right of presumption of innocence. This is one repression tactic of the government: using the judicial system as an apparatus to crush freedom of expression. Personally, I have been forced to lose my country, where I grew up and dreamed of living my life.

What do you think are the motivations behind the recent releases of some of your colleagues? Could this be the start of a positive trend in Ethiopia?

Gebremicheal: It is too early to tell what the government’s motives are. The official explanation is that the offence committed by the released was deemed less serious than the offence of those of us who remain charged. But in general I believe the releases are a result of the year-long pressure on the Ethiopian government. In order to call this the start of a positive trend, the release of our other colleagues, independent journalists and other political prisoners should have followed. 

Chala: I am happy that some of my colleagues were released, but the manner in which they were released does not show any kind of positive trend. First of all, they were released selectively, despite the fact that they were all charged with the same alleged crime. Second, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Ethiopian government released the bloggers just two weeks ahead of President Obama’s visit.

I believe the Ethiopian government released the bloggers because of the pressure they got from different parts of world, but they were not pressured enough to release all political prisoners. On his historic visit to Ethiopia, President Obama described the minority-led government that won all the parliamentary seats in a sham election as a democratically elected government. How can one describe a government which has been clinging to power for a quarter of a century a democratically elected government?

In Ethiopia, there is only about 2% internet penetration. With such little internet penetration, why do you think that the government is cracking down on bloggers?

Gebremicheal: It’s because the Internet is being used mostly by educated youth, who can be easily mobilized and can also mobilize other people. The government is afraid of the Arab Spring, in which the Internet had a big role in mobilization, being replicated here in Ethiopia. It is also because currently all media outlets are closed to open, non-government-directed discussions and all discussion being conducted online by bloggers (like Zone 9) creates a new alterative narrative in comparison to the narrative the government wants people to hear. 

Chala: The Ethiopian government wants to retain full control over the flow of information within the country. It wants to keep the old structure of the way information flows within its grip. The government fully controls publishing houses, printing presses, the airwaves, and it wants to organize the society around their specific rhetoric of development, peace, and stability. The Internet has created a small arena of opportunity for dissent, so the government is going to every length to keep the Internet closed.

What avenues do you see to encourage and grow civil society?

Gebremicheal: As long as the Proclamation to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies [also known as CSP, which violates international standards in relation to freedom of association] is legal, it is very difficult to encourage and grow civil society within the country unless changes or amendments to the Proclamation are advocated for.

Chala: Based on the current structure of the Ethiopian public sphere, which is closed and controlled by a few, the most viable means to encourage civil society must utilize the Internet as a tool. I think the Internet has created fractures and fissures within the public sphere here and there which are evidenced by a multitude of online groups raising and discussing several taboo issues, which people do not dare to raise in discussion under normal circumstances.

What can PEN/international actors do to help this process of encouraging and growing civil society?

Gebremicheal: Working with individual activists until the CSP is lifted.

Chala: I think there are a plethora of ways that international actors might help. They can help build the capacity of local activists so that activists can better communicate local problems to their audience. They can help in networking and bringing global focus to local problems as they do with the case of the Zone 9 bloggers. For me these changes are  equivalent to actions that work towards dismantling institutionalized repression in Ethiopia. However, in the process international actors such as PEN must pay attention to local sensitivities. I guess so far they have done so tremendously well, but they should be careful not to be co-opted by different political forces. I believe the cliché ‘think globally and act locally’ is relevant in the quest for freedom of expression in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia uses their anti-terrorism laws in order to jail journalists like your colleagues and Eskinder Nega and justify the arrests as a matter of national security. What can be done to stop the misappropriation and misuse of these laws? Is international pressure effective? What international measures work and do not work?

Gebremicheal:  The government of Ethiopia intentionally mixes national security concerns with political opposition and critics by using anti-terrorism laws to charge writers and bloggers. This is not something that has happened solely to me and my colleagues; it is national fact that anyone can be a terrorist any time the government proclaims them to be one. We should showcase the detrimental magnitude of the impact of the law when any decent person can be falsely accused  as a terrorist. The problem is not only with the law but with the judiciary system in general and the state of rule of law in particular. Any advocacy work should highlight that it is not only the law but the dysfunctional justice system which affects the life of any decent Ethiopian.

Chala: One of the dreadful things the Ethiopian government has done over the past six years is to deliberately fuse concerns of terrorism in the region with genuine concerns regarding the lack of good governance, repression, and widening income inequality. The Ethiopian government has labeled journalists and individuals with different opinions as terrorists more than any other sub-Saharan African country. Since the passing of the anti-terrorism law in 2009, Ethiopia prosecuted hundreds of journalists under this law, and this trend echoes a larger, worldwide trend. The Ethiopian government has successfully co-opted the global rhetoric  of muffling freedom of expression in a country under the guise of fighting violent extremism. Despite the popular belief that Ethiopia is geographically vulnerable to violent extremism, there is not enough data to confirm that the country has suffered a significant attack of violent extremism even though the Ethiopian regime tries to give the impression that Ethiopia is under imminent threat from violent extremism. I think the reason for doing this is because the Ethiopian government wants to rule by fear. This is a dangerous game the Ethiopian government is playing with the blessing of powerful governments, such as the US and those of countries in the EU, which might lead the entire region into chaos. I believe international relations should not be based on ephemeral and myopic benefits but rather based on real data, values, and respect for humanity among which I think freedom to express oneself is one of the fundamental values to build an open and democratic society. The continuous advocacy work which has been  launched after the arrest of my colleagues can be considered effective but not enough to open up the closed environment.

What measures can bloggers take to protect themselves and their identities online?

Chala: We are living in a digital age which requires a minimal cryptographic literacy. I think considering the situation in Ethiopia, bloggers are required to posses some skills of cryptography along with strict behavioral codes that they adhere to in order to protect themselves and their identities online. There are many tools that can help people to protect themselves online, such as EEF’s Surveillance Self-defense toolkit, which is the most compressive guide of online security. The great thing about this guide is it is available in many languages. I think bloggers around the globe should use it to protect themselves.

What is your advice for individuals (bloggers and writers) in Ethiopia and beyond who look to defend and celebrate freedom of expression?

Gebremicheal: Writing is the best tool to fight any repression. It confirms writers’ freedom and readers’ freedom too. That is why we are writing and that is why individuals should keep writing too.

Chala: Freedom of expression is a gateway to other fundamental rights. I want to encourage anyone who is engaged in this honorable work to continue their work. I also believe defending and celebrating freedom of expression means being tolerant of others when they exercise their freedom of expression.

What do you see for the future of digital freedom in Ethiopia?

Gebremicheal: The future really depends on the willingness of the regime. Generally, it is known that the digital world is becoming a significant source of information for young Ethiopians. Despite all the restrictions, the Internet will remain an invaluable source of information.

Chala: Unless there is a fundamental change in Ethiopia’s policy regarding telecom service provision, the future of digital freedom in Ethiopia is bleak. A bit of context to this statement: Ethiopia has only one government-owned telecom service provider, and the government does not have any intention of opening the market up for private companies. The bottom line is the Ethiopian government wants to remain in control of every bit of information infrastructure in the country, and it has to come up with an ideological explanation to mask their inherent interest in keeping access to information from the wider population.

Editor’s note: This interviewed has been edited for clarity and length.