NAIROBI, Kenya - A cursory glance at the headlines shows that Ethiopia has one of Africa's fastest growing economies. But the noise generated by the hyperbolic international media is drowning out the critical voices.
Political opposition is being strangled by the authorities as activists and journalists are arrested and thrown into jail at a dizzying pace.
On April 25 of this year, the Ethiopian government made news by arresting six bloggers and three freelance journalists. Setting a dangerous precedent for other governments in the region and beyond, authorities are now targeting youth online.
The nine writers are facing terrorism-related charges, standing accused of inciting violence through social media. The six bloggers are members of the online collective known as Zone 9. The moniker was chosen to represent the inalienable right to freedom of expression: journalists are often held in the section of Addis Ababa's Kality prison known as Zone 8.
"The government claims [those detained] are conspiring with foreign non-governmental organizations, human rights groups," said journalist Araya Getachew. "It also claims that they are also working for banned terrorist organizations trying to overthrow the state. This is totally false."
State crackdown online
Araya Getachew, 29, along with Mastewal Birhanu, 27, and Fasil Girma, 29, all sought refuge in Kenya following a state crackdown on media in Ethiopia. Some veteran journalists were not so fortunate: Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu have all been recently sentenced under a new media law.
Human Rights Watch is monitoring the situation. HRW stated: "Since Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law was adopted in 2009, the independent media have been decimated by politically motivated prosecutions under the law. The government has systematically thwarted attempts by journalists to establish new publications."
Critical blogs and websites are regularly blocked, says HRW. In 2012, even publishers which printed publications that criticized authorities ended up being shut down.
Mastewal was arrested last year alongside his editor for printing editions of the newspaper Feteh. The reason the authorities gave for shutting down the newspaper and arresting Mastewal and his editor was that they published news of the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi before an official government announcement was made.
"The government confiscated and burned all 40,000 copies of the newspaper," Mastewal says. "I was put in jail and charged. I refused to plea bargain to help convict my editor. I left the country."
"For me," says Araya, "there's no doubt if I were in Ethiopia that I would have been arrested by now. Most bloggers and freelancers there are my friends."
All three Ethiopian journalists now live in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Unlike most Ethiopian emigrants in Kenya, they are political, not economic, refugees.
Mastewal and Araya applied at the UN High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, to be resettled in Canada. They still await a response from the Canadian High Commission.
"We made our claim together with UNHCR," Araya said. "We have file numbers but nobody to call, no contact person at the high commission. They still have not told us when we'll be leaving for Canada."
Fasil founded a public forum in Ethiopia for journalists to discuss issues of corruption in government. Not long afterwards, he was all but chased out of the country.
"I left Ethiopia two years ago," he says. "I was doing research with Transparency International. We sent an anti-corruption report to the Ethiopian government for feedback and then the pressure became so intense that I had to leave."
The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments have recently started working together to combat the spread of terrorism across the region. This cooperation is making Nairobi-based Ethiopian journalists feel uneasy about speaking or writing freely.
"With the Kenyan security forces rounding up refugees," says Fasil. "I fear deportation. It's tough to go out and come back safely."
It is now over 100 days, and counting, since the six Zone 9 bloggers and the three freelance journalists were thrown into Ethiopian prison cells. For Fasil, like most political refugees, life in Kenya is tough. But, unlike Araya and Mastewal, he is not yet ready to give up and head to Canada.
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