Ethiopia’s state of emergency has seen thousands of people detained, allegedly in connection with the unrest last year in the Oromia region. Those arrested have included journalists and bloggers. VOA sat down with three of them in Addis Ababa ahead of World Press Freedom Day (May 3).
University lecturer and commentator Seyoum Teshome was arrested in October and detained for two months after he gave a radio interview to Deutsche Welle in which he criticized the government.
Since his release, Seyoum has continued to post several times a week on various political blogs and social media about current affairs.
“I got so many warnings from the local officials, from the command post, from the security officials. It’s very, very risky. If you stop, that means you are surrendering to that fear. And to confront that fear you have to keep writing, so I’m going to keep writing to challenge the fear that they want to sustain in the country,” Seyoum said.
Ethiopia’s government spokesman did not answer phone calls for comment. However, the government has repeatedly said over the years that those arrested are terrorists posing as journalists.
From bad to worse
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) says the state of emergency declared in October has further curtailed press freedom and access to information. As a result, RWB ranked Ethiopia 150 out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. That is eight spots lower than the previous year.
Blogger Befekadu Hailu says he has seen the change firsthand.
“When you freely express yourself before the state of emergency, you have the risk of getting jailed, but the security officials have to come up with an excuse to take you to court. Now they don’t need any excuse,” Befekadu said.
Befekadu has been detained twice.
He was arrested in 2014 in relation with the Zone 9 bloggers collective and held for a year-and-a-half on charges of terrorism and inciting violence by writing.
Speaking for the voiceless
Befekadu was arrested again last November and held for 40 days, this time without formal charge. Like many arrested under the state of emergency, he was held at a rehabilitation camp. The government says detainees are given courses on the constitution and civic values.
“I have met a lot of youngsters who were severely beaten and tortured. I’ve heard a lot of stories that put me in a responsibility to speak about them. Because most of them do not have any access to the press or even social media. So I have the responsibility of speaking about the voiceless. So it’s a mixed feeling that I come out after the rehabilitation.”
Under the state of emergency, Ethiopians have been banned from looking at certain media outlets. Social media platforms such as Facebook are still blocked in the country.
The government said the state of emergency was necessary to stabilize the country during deadly unrest last year. Parliament extended the state of emergency in March. The defense minister said there were still what he called “anti-peace elements” active in the country.
Blogger Anania Sorri was released in March after being detained for four months without charge. He has continued writing and publishing.
“Those who are in power and those who claim to lead the society somewhere should see the merit of expressing thoughts freely. In any society, freely expressing thoughts and entertaining new ideas is a key to their progress.”
Ethiopia is Africa’s third worst jailer of journalists after Egypt and Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Bloggers have assumed a more prominent role in Ethiopia in recent years as dozens of journalists have fled into exile and several independent newspapers have been closed.