Arrests Headline Ethiopia Press Freedom fears

665003303001_3526768948001_2014430124348254734-20Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  The arrest of six bloggers and three journalists by Ethiopia’s government last week, has led to widespread outcry in the Horn of Africa nation – even among those generally supportive of the ruling party’s policies.

The detainees were unusually brought to court on Sunday, April 27 in the capital Addis Ababa where judges granted investigators more time to make their case. 

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Authorities suspect the nine of working with foreign advocacy groups to try to create unrest using social media, according to local media reports. The next court hearings are May 7 and 8, when formal charges may be brought.

Ethiopia’s government, a staunch Western ally in a poor and violent region, has a track record of jailing journalists and political activists, often using a 2009 anti-terrorism law. While officials say no one has ever been imprisoned for expressing their opinion, rights groups accuse authorities of using the broad terms of the law to crush legitimate dissent.

Friends and readers portray the Zone 9 bloggers as young and principled activists pressuring Ethiopia’s government to respect the country’s liberal 1995 constitution.

“Most of the time they’re engaged in advocating freedom of expression and what they call Dreaming of a Better Ethiopia,” says Merkeb Negash, a politics lecturer from Jimma University in Ethiopia’s southwest. The group had recently started blogging again after a 7-month break and complaints of surveillance and harassment by security forces.

Merkeb believes Ethiopia’s state-centric development model, which critics accuse of being heavy-handed with dissidents, has delivered security, infrastructure and economic growth to a previously destitute, strife-torn country. However, these latest arrests are another indication that the victorious rebel group turned ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), doesn’t respect constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression, he said.

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