Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country | KUOW News and Information

Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country

May 31, 2016
Originally published on June 21, 2016 6:15 am

Zelalem Kibret remembers the day: July 8, 2015. He was in a prison library reading a biography of Malcolm X, his own copy, when some guards called his name and handed him a piece of paper. The message: All charges against him were withdrawn. He was being released.

"I was asking why," says Zelalem, a 29-year-old lawyer and blogger. "And nobody was giving us a reason."

Zelalem, who'd been in jail for more than a year on terrorism charges related to his blog posts, suspected the reason. His release, he believes, was a "personal gift" to President Obama, then three weeks away from an official visit to Ethiopia, the first ever by a U.S. president.

The U.S. had been pushing quietly the release of Zelalem and five other members of Zone 9, his blogging crew. Zone 9 takes its name from the eight zones of the infamous Kality Prison outside Addis Ababa, where political prisoners and journalists are held. Activists joke that the 9th Zone is everything outside the prison walls — the rest of Ethiopia.

"Zone 9 is Ethiopia with relative freedom, but still you felt that you are in detention," Zelalem explains.

Zelalem and the other Zone 9 bloggers had been critical of corruption and repression by the Ethiopian government, but their blogs and Facebook posts were seen as a relatively safe space for criticism in a country with about 3 percent Internet penetration.

But the arrest of six bloggers, including Zelalem, and three other journalists in 2014 sent a signal that as Facebook was becoming more popular in Ethiopia, digital reportage might now become just as censored as print journalism. Journalists are regularly imprisoned under Ethiopia's wide-ranging anti-terrorism law, which makes it a crime to have contact with any group that the Ethiopian government deems is trying to overthrow it.

At a press conference during Obama's visit, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn conceded, "We need many young journalists to come up." But, he said, "We need ethical journalism. There is also capacity limitations in journalism."

The phrase "capacity limitations" — and its cousin, "capacity building" — came out of development lingo of the 1990s. Ethiopian officials often use "capacity" explanations to assert that journalists are jailed not because they are critical of the government — but because they are less professional, more unethical and more incendiary than Ethiopia's fledgling democracy can tolerate.

In keeping with this theme, Hailemariam nodded to Obama's traveling press corps and asked them to "help our journalists to increase their capacity."

Obama had offered an opportunity for just that, promoting his Young African Leaders Initiative, which gives scholarships for 1,000 African leaders to study in the U.S. each summer.

Zelalem, out of prison but unable to get back his university teaching job, followed Obama's advice. He applied and was accepted to the Young African Leaders Initiative. This summer, he was supposed to study civic leadership at the University of Virginia.

He won't be going. Ethiopian immigration officials confiscated his passport at Bole International Airport in November. They also took away the passports of four of his five colleagues who were released in advance of Obama's visit.

That's when Zone 9 became more than a metaphor. They were literally imprisoned in their own country.

Zelalem sees this as evidence of a new strategy. In past years, Ethiopia has been willing to let its critical citizens flee the country. (For several years, Ethiopia has ranked on or near the top of the list of countries with the most exiled journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Now, Zelalem says, the government may be deciding that it's better to keep critics close by.

"Especially for people like us working on social media," Zelalem says. "Whether we are here or in America or somewhere else, we may write and we can reach our audiences. Therefore, it's better to keep [us] here and silence [us]."

When I brought up Zelalem's case with Ethiopia's Minister of Communication, Getachew Redda, he said he wasn't familiar with it. But he offered a different explanation for the blogger's rough treatment at the hands of Ethiopian Immigration: Ethiopia's young institutions, he said — including its judges and immigration officials — could zealously overstep their bounds. They could even make mistakes that would take months or years to correct.

The minister's solution? "More capacity building."


On June 2, Ethiopian authorities returned Zelalem's passport. He arrived in the U.S. in mid-June and is now studying at the University of Virginia for the summer. "It is like walking with the Founding Fathers discussing their dreams for America and else," Zelalem says via email. When he returns to Ethiopia in August, "I will keep on writing with more vigor and empowered knowledge."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama visited Ethiopia last summer. Just in time for that visit, Ethiopia's government made a gesture of openness.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Five bloggers and journalists got out of jail. The gesture did not last. NPR's Gregory Warner reports what happened after Air Force One departed.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Zelalem Kibret remembers the day - July 8, 2015. He was in the prison library reading a biography of Malcolm X - his own copy - when some guards called his name.

ZELALEM KIBRET: They were calling my name and they gave us a piece of paper and it says your charge against you was withdrawn. And I was asking why and no one was giving us a reason.

WARNER: But he suspected the reason. President Obama was due to pay a visit to Ethiopia in just three weeks.

KIBRET: I believe that our release was a personal gift for the president.

WARNER: A personal gift for Obama.

KIBRET: Yes.

WARNER: The United States had been pushing for Zelalem's release and the release of his blogging crew known as Zone 9. Zone 9 is a play on the fact that there are eight zones in this infamous prison called Kality where many politicals and journalists are held. Activists joke that the ninth zone is outside the prison walls. That is, the rest of Ethiopia.

KIBRET: Zone 9 is Ethiopia with relative freedom, but still you felt that you are in detention.

WARNER: Some weeks later, Zelalem was enjoying this relative freedom with a cup of coffee in a hotel restaurant watching President Obama's press conference on Ethiopian television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon (foreign language spoken).

KIBRET: President Obama was saying the Ethiopian government is a democratically-elected government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Democratically elected.

KIBRET: And that statement was - I mean, it was so bad for - especially for the peoples in prison.

WARNER: That's when Zelalem and his fellow bloggers felt their stomachs sink. That phrase democratically-elected they felt stamped legitimacy on a ruling party that does control 100 percent of Parliament. But at that same press conference, the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, seemed to offer an olive branch to local journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER HAILEMARIAM DESALEGN: We need many young journalists to come up but we need ethical journalism. There is also capacity limitations in journalism

WARNER: Ethiopian officials have seized on this phrase capacity building that came out of development lingo in the 1990s. They often claim that journalists get jailed not because they're critical but because they're less professional, more unethical and incendiary than Ethiopia's young democracy can safely handle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESALEGN: Maybe those of you who are in developed nations, you can help our journalists to increase their capacity.

WARNER: And at that press conference, President Obama offered an opportunity to do just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We welcome Ethiopian students to study in the United States through our Young African Leaders Initiative.

WARNER: So Zelalem followed that advice and he actually was accepted into the Young African Leaders Initiative. This summer, he's supposed to study civic leadership at the University of Virginia.

Are you going to the University of Virginia?

KIBRET: So far I have no travel documents. I don't know but I hope.

WARNER: Zelalem's passport was confiscated by Ethiopian authorities at the airport in November. That's when Zone 9 became more than a metaphor

KIBRET: No one is giving me a reason why I can't travel outside my country.

WARNER: What do they say, just come back next week or something?

KIBRET: We will call you when we want, they say.

WARNER: When I brought this up with the Ethiopian minister of communication, Getachew Reda, he said he did not know Zelalem's case specifically, but he had a different explanation for the blogger's rough treatment at the hands of immigration officials. Ethiopia's young institutions, the minister said, could zealously overstep their bounds. They could even make mistakes. The minister's solution - more capacity building. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.