Is freedom of expression really free in Ethiopia? - CNBC Africa

Is freedom of expression really free in Ethiopia?

East Africa

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Prisoner in handcuffs. PHOTO: Getty Images

“With the latest arrests, Ethiopian authorities are turning the peaceful exercise of free expression into a crime,” said Tom Rhodes, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) East African representative.

This follows after the Ethiopian government arrested nine journalists on Sunday, accusing them of working with foreign human rights organisations and using social media to create instability in the country.

The journalists, who were arrested in multiple raids, have been denied access to their families and lawyers and are being held at the Maekelawi federal detention centre in Addis Ababa.

According to the international nongovernmental organisation, Human Rights Watch, interrogators at Maekelawi tend to use torture tactics to extract false confessions from detainees, however, the government denies these allegations.

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Six of the detainees, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu, are bloggers from an independent media site, Zone 9, which publishes news and commentary.

The site was started in May 2012 after the Ethiopian government began its crackdown on independent press by constricting the space for freedom of expression in the country.  

The Zone 9 bloggers, who frequently write on domestic issues such as political repression and social injustices, often get blocked by Ethiopian authorities however gained a significant following among Ethiopians in the diaspora.  

The other detainees, a senior editor of the private Amharic weekly news magazine, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, and freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, may have been arrested on suspicions of being affiliated with the Zone 9 journalists.

Getachew Reda, an adviser to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister ,Hailemariam Desalegn, told Reuters that the accused have been arrested for criminal activities.

 “These are not journalists. Their arrest has nothing to do with journalism but with serious criminal activities. We don’t crack down on journalism or freedom of speech. But if someone tries to use his or her profession to engage in criminal activities, then there is a distinction there,” said Reda.

CPJ on the other hand believes that the government are being paranoid and that the journalists should be released immediately.

“We call on Ethiopian authorities to halt their slide into paranoia and authoritarianism, and instead to allow critical commentary and public debate to thrive. These nine journalists should be released immediately,” added Rhodes.

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