Ruth Smeeth: “From Ethiopia to Hong Kong, we will not abandon you”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114148″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Following the news this week has been harrowing. Beyond the ongoing awful deaths from Covid-19 and the daily redundancy notices we also now have some governments turning against their citizens. Free speech around the world, or rather the restrictions on it, have dominated nearly every news cycle and behind each report there have been inspiring personal stories of immense bravery in standing up against repression.

While there have been government orchestrated or sanctioned attacks on free speech across the globe, from Turkey to Poland, Brazil to Kashmir, the most stark has been the appalling attack on human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese government has dealt a fatal blow to the “one country, two systems” pledge. In the hours that followed the government enacting its new National Security Law for Hong Kong, hundreds of people deleted their social media accounts for fear of arrest. Pro-democracy campaigners have shut up shop in the fear of life imprisonment and journalists on the ground are under huge pressure to curtail their reports.

In spite of the very real threat of arrest, however, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand their human rights to free association, to free speech and to a life lived without fear of tyranny. Their actions, their bravery and their determination should inspire us all and I’d urge you to read the words of our correspondent from Hong Kong, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho. Events in Hong Kong need to generate more than just a hashtag – we need action from our governments. And we all must stand with Hong Kong.

As events developed in Hong Kong other national leaders were also moving against their populations. On Monday, the Ethiopian musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was murdered. Hundeessaa’s music provided the living soundtrack to the protest movement that led to the former prime minister’s resignation. In the hours that followed Hundeessaa’s murder 80 people were killed and the government deployed the military in order to restrict protest and limit access to Hundeessaa’s funeral. They have also switched off access to the internet (again) to stop people telling their stories.

It is easy for us to miss the people behind these events. And in a world where oppression is becoming all too common, sustaining our anger to support one cause when the next outrage is reported can be difficult. But we cannot and will not abandon those who have shown such bravery in the face of brute force and institutional power.

Index was created to be “a voice for the persecuted” and with you we will keep being exactly that.  Providing a platform for the voiceless and shining a light on repressive regimes wherever they may be.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Essential reading” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Scholars at Risk: Zelalem Kibret forced to choose between silence and speaking his mind

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Ethiopian blogger and academic, Zelalem Kibret, was raised in a country where living in silence or speaking your mind was often a choice between life and death.

“Political prisoners have been released but the academic conditions are getting worse and universities are shutting down” says Zelalem, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at Canada’s McGill University. “Students are being killed.”

In May 2005, the Ethiopian general election and its bloody aftermath resulted in the purging of hundreds of journalists and opposition leaders. It was this political phenomenon and its snowballing effect that led Zelalem and his colleagues to create Zone 9, a blogging network that campaigned for human rights, freedom of speech and shared ideas and hopes for Ethiopia that challenged the status quo, on May 2012.  

But, in April 2014, Zelalem was arrested and charged with a crime of “outrage against the institution and the constitutional order”. He was detained, interrogated, and tortured for three months in the infamous Maekelawi Prison before being transferred to Qilinto Prison, where he was held until July 2015.

After his release, Zelalem was fortunate to participate in the African Leadership Initiative fellowship sponsored by then-US president Barack Obama, which allowed him to study at The University of Virginia. He then took part in a research fellow the Centre of Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University and became a visiting fellow at Harvard. Now at McGill, Zelalem is researching intergovernmental relationship, new social movements and liberation technologies, post-conflict Africa, and the role of individuals in international law.  

Since the appointment of new prime minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018 Ethiopia has undergone a series of reforms, including the release of some political prisoners, journalists and activists from custody. Not long after, the government announced Maekelawi Prison, where Zelalem and many others were tortured,  would be closed. Abiy has made a dramatic effort to support the democratic transition for the African state by announcing plans to institute term limits for prime ministers, encouraging exiled opposition politicians to return home and proposing an end to government monopolies in key economic sectors.

Though the developments are promising, there are still causes for concern

“The political sphere is somehow liberalised and it’s somehow good but structurally and institutionally, laws that are used to suppress freedom of expression are still there.”

Zelalem spoke to Lauren Savage, an MA journalism student at the University of Sheffield, for Index on Censorship.

Index: What makes you such an avid supporter of freedom of expression?

Zelalem Kibret: Since 2005 I have been involved in several projects and in many journalistic areas. I personally cherish freedom of expression and freedom of speech because it directly involves me. While in Ethiopia I personally had many experiences of repression and suppression. So I am very interested to fight for my own personal rights.

Index: How did you go about setting up Zone 9 and what drove you to do this?

Zelalem: Zone 9 was a network of like-minded young Ethiopians who met on Facebook. One day in May 2012 one of our friends asked us to visit a political prisoner, a journalist actually. She has now been released and is living in the US. After we visited her, we discussed about collaborating with each other and making a collective. Each of us had our personal blogs and by creating Zone 9 we made our blogging capacity more approachable. It was something we made on Facebook, it was a very informal organisation, we didn’t talk about it before and then suddenly it happened.

Index: Why was zone 9 perceived as such a threat to the government?

Zelalem: When we created Zone 9 one of our main goals was to fill a gap—since the May 2005 election, many journalists in Ethiopia were killed and I am pretty sure there were no political journalists in Ethiopia that were actively criticising the Ethiopian government during the time of 2011 and 2012.  We tried to fill that gap and the government was not happy with our decision. We were campaigning on human rights, we were writing critical articles, and writing many memos about the treatment of political prisoners. We were also writing memos on different types of rights—political, economic and social. I think it was very critical and that is why the government was upset about our group.

Index: What was your experience of being arrested and imprisoned? What were your charges and what led to your release?

Zelalem: For the first three months we were accused of “outrage against the institution and the constitutional order”. The government was accusing us of collaborating with western human rights and other types of powerful organisations to overthrow the Ethiopian government. That was the first and primary charge especially during early interrogations. After three months of interrogation we were also charged with terrorism.  

For me it was a mixed experience, yes prison is bad and there was torture, especially in the first three months during the interrogations. It was very tough for all of us, but once they established the charge and the case against us, we were transferred to another remand centre. It was quite an experience for me to see and interact with other political prisoners. There were hundreds of them imprisoned with me and other colleagues. It was somehow a good experience to see what it looked like, to be inside the real Ethiopia. Prison is bad and very restrictive, as we know, especially Ethiopian prisons, which are highly overcrowded and dilapidated. The prison conditions are very terrible, there is a lack of service, water and electricity that made it difficult.

I was released in July 2015. We were waiting for another trial in 10 days when a police officer came to our compound and they called my name and the name of a friend of mine. Out of the nine, five of us got released on 8 July 2015 and they told us that the charges against us were dropped and withdrawn by the public prosecutor. They didn’t tell us why four of our friends remained in jail but five of us were released suddenly with no reason. Finally, we found out that president Barack Obama was to visit Ethiopia in ten days time and we heard that the US Embassy in Ethiopia and the US government was pushing the Ethiopian government against the charges on us. I believe it was like a kind of welcoming gift to the president.

Index: What were the challenges of adjusting to a new life in America?

Zelalem:I directly came from an academic background but it’s a very different academic curriculum and environment. So, acclimating to this new context was the first challenge that I faced. When you are a researcher and academic who focuses on topics like Ethiopia, being in Ethiopian is a major asset. However, I’m 15,000 kilometres away from Ethiopia and contextualising myself to what is happening there presently is another challenge that I face, as well as it being a very different environment generally. Otherwise, academics and many good friends have made my settlement and time in the US very easy.

Index: You have been studying liberation technology, why is technology so important for freedom of expression?

Zelalem: Last year I was at Harvard at the Hutchins Centre for African and American Research and my major research topic was liberation technology and new social movements in present day sub-Saharan Africa.  I was focusing on a protest movement and how new tools such as social media are enabling young people and the general populace to organise protests and facing security and the government. Freedom of expression is an individual right but it also needs to be protected by groups, it needs campaigns and movement for security to protect it. Individually you can’t get what you want unless you fight with other like-minded citizens for rights like freedom of expression, so these tools are making this networking easier. I am a living witness for that, if it wasn’t for these new technologies I might not have known my friends at Zone 9 or many other activists all over the continent in Africa. To secure, as well as to protect these technologies is important and fundamental to enable us in the present day. At the same time governments are using these tools to spy on their on citizens, it’s a trade off, there are some pros and cons with technology, it’s a natural consequence. But it’s a very important thing too.  

Index: Has your relationship to journalism changed since the Zone 9 blog?

Zelalem: Yes of course! I took some training and I try to make my work more formal and professional since we established Zone 9. I personally used to blog and write on many topics, but it was just a personal thing and I could write whatever I wanted. But since we started Zone 9, my work started becoming more professional. So I think it changed a lot.

Index: What are your thoughts of freedom of expression in Ethiopia now in 2018? Do you believe it has improved?

Zelalem: The political sphere is somehow liberalised and it’s somehow good but, still structurally and institutionally, those laws used to suppress freedom of expression, those institutions that are being controlled by the government to suppress freedom of expression and to jail journalists are still in place. So even if the spirit is good, the repressive tools are still there and at any time the government can back pedal to the past. I am cautiously optimistic, there have been some optimistic stories, there have been some new openings but especially institution wise we keep stepping back and we need to step forward I believe.

Index: What advice would you give to journalists in Ethiopia today?

Zelalem: There are a lot of things to give but mainly to be professional in their work is the most important thing.  Journalism is currently used as an attacking tool, by one group against another maybe by the government against the opposition or some ethnic interests against another the interest of a perceived enemy ethnic group. If I have to offer some advice, first and foremost, it’s professionalism. I wish that Ethiopian journalists will adhere to this very important virtue.  [/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_single_image image=”105189″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][vc_column_text]This article was created in partnership with Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars, promote academic freedom, and defend everyone’s right to think, question, and share ideas freely and safely. By arranging temporary academic positions at member universities and colleges, Scholars at Risk offers safety to scholars facing grave threats, so scholars’ ideas are not lost and they can keep working until conditions improve and they are able to return to their home countries. Scholars at Risk also provides advisory services for scholars and hosts, campaigns for scholars who are imprisoned or silenced in their home countries, monitoring of attacks on higher education communities worldwide, and leadership in deploying new tools and strategies for promoting academic freedom and improving respect for university values everywhere.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1550654103101-2d8c5cd7-c584-0″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#Index100: Unveiling this year’s 100 global free speech heroes


A graffiti artist who paints murals in war-torn Yemen, a jailed Bahraini academic and the Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers are among those honoured in this year’s #Index100 list of global free expression heroes.

Selected from public nominations from around the world, the #Index100 highlights champions against censorship and those who fight for free expression against the odds in the fields of arts, journalism, activism and technology and whose work had a marked impact in 2015.

Those on the long list include Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Angolan journalist Sedrick de Carvalho, website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and refugee arts venue Good Chance Calais. The #Index100 includes nominees from 53 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to China to El Salvador and Zambia, and who were selected from around 500 public nominations.

“The individuals and organisations listed in the #Index100 demonstrate courage, creativity and determination in tackling threats to censorship in every corner of globe. They are a testament to the universal value of free expression. Without their efforts in the face of huge obstacles, often under violent harassment, the world would be a darker place,” Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg said.

Those in the #Index100 form the long list for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards to be presented in April. Now in their 16th year, the awards recognise artists, journalists and campaigners who have had a marked impact in tackling censorship, or in defending free expression, in the past year. Previous winners include Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Argentina-born conductor Daniel Barenboim and Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.

A shortlist will be announced in January 2016 and winners then selected by an international panel of judges. This year’s judges include Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka, classical pianist James Rhodes and award-winning journalist María Teresa Ronderos. Other judges include Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, tech “queen of startups” Bindi Karia and human rights lawyer Kirsty Brimelow QC.

The winners will be announced on 13 April at a gala ceremony at London’s Unicorn Theatre.

The awards are distinctive in attempting to identify individuals whose work might be little acknowledged outside their own communities. Judges place particular emphasis on the impact that the awards and the Index fellowship can have on winners in enhancing their security, magnifying the impact of their work or increasing their sustainability. Winners become Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellows and are given support for the year after their fellowship on one aspect of their work.

“The award ceremony was aired by all community radios in northern Kenya and reached many people. I am happy because it will give women courage to stand up for their rights,” said 2015’s winner of the Index campaigning award, Amran Abdundi, a women’s rights activist working on the treacherous border between Somalia and Kenya.

Each member of the long list is shown on an interactive map on the Index website where people can find out more about their work. This is the first time Index has published the long list for the awards.

For more information on the #Index100, please contact [email protected] or call 0207 260 2665. 

Ethiopia: Young bloggers jailed for over two months without charge

(Photo: Zone 9/Facebook)

(Photo: Zone 9/Facebook)

“We blog because we care!” This is the slogan and rallying cry of Zone 9, a group of young Ethiopians writing about social and political issues in their country. For over two months however, blogging has been out of the question for most of them. In late April, six members of the group – which takes its name from an area of Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, where several journalists are jailed – were arrested and have been detained since.

Befeqadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berahane, Natnael Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret – all between the age of 25 and 32 – have been accused of “working with foreign organisations” and “receiving finance to incite public violence through social media”, but have yet to be formally charged. Journalists Edom Kassaye, Tesfalem Weldeyes and Asemamaw Hailegiorgis were also arrested for their alleged links to Zone 9. Tomorrow, several of them are due in court again.

The story of the case so far, as covered by the blog Justice Matters, makes for worrying reading. The group were initially taken to Maekelawi detention centre, where according to Human Rights Watch, political prisoners have been tortured. They have been prevented from communicating with lawyers and family members. Hearings have predominantly served to extend the police’s investigation period. Police have also appeared to move away from accusing them of conspiring with foreign organisations and towards a terrorism charge, under which other journalists have been sentenced.

Zone 9 have been active since May 2012 and this is not the first time the group has attracted the attention of the authorities. According to their Facebook page, their mission is to provide an “alternative independent narration of the socio-political conditions in Ethiopia and thereby foster public discourse that will result in emergence of ideas for the betterment of the Nation”. They have organised online campaigns, including #EthiopianDream, encouraging their fellow citizens to share messages “question[ing] themselves and discuss[ing] their dream for the country”.

Their work has proved unpopular with the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who came to power following the death of long-time leader Meles Zenawi in 2012. The country’s leadership has continuously come under international criticism for its abysmal record on free expression and other human rights.

The majority of media is state-controlled or sympathetic to the government, with critical news outlets and journalists routinely targeted. Ethiopia is the world’s third worst jailer of the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The sweeping anti-terrorism legislation put in place in 2009 is often utilised to crack down on oppositional voices. Journalist Eskinder Nega publicly questioned the law and its implementation, only to be convicted to 18 years in prison under it in 2012.

Beyond crackdowns on press freedom, the country’s Muslim community has been hounded by the government, opposition protests are regularly banned, and foreign NGOs are not allowed to work on political and human rights issues.

Zone 9 was set up against this backdrop, and the group soon discovered the, too, were seen as a threat. The blog has been blocked and members have faced harassed at the hands of security services. Last September they took what would end up being a seven-month hiatus from publishing, due to the pressures connected to running the site. The six were arrested only days after announcing that they were to resume blogging.

Despite the fact that internet penetration in Ethiopia currently stands at around 1 per cent, authorities seems very aware of the web’s potential as a platform for free expression and, in turn, dissent. Paul Brown of BBC Monitoring believes the Zone 9 arrests “suggest that the government is taking online activism seriously – probably because elections are due next year.” There have even been reports of the government “training” internet users to post attacks on those who criticise authorities online and to post messages of support for the regime.

Zone 9 co-founder Endalkachew H/Michael recently spoke to CPJ from New York; he left Ethiopia to study in the US shortly before his colleagues were arrested. He says the government are trying to control the flow of information. “There is no plurality of voices in government and media. And they want to control that because there is a sort of plurality on the internet. If you go into the Ethiopian social media sphere, you see all kinds of comments about the government and opposition groups,” he explains.

The government, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the arrests are not connected to journalism but “serious criminal activity”.

“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,” Getachew Reda, an adviser to the prime minister told Reuters

But the story has drawn widespread condemnation, from international human rights organisations to news outlets to diplomats, with even US Secretary of State John Kerry calling it a “serious issue”. The hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers has in the past few weeks accumulated outrage and solidarity from across the world. Endalkachew H/Michael says this attention in important. “I want the public to remain focused on this issue. The government is trying to make the public forget the human rights violations and journalists’ poor situation in Ethiopia.”


According to Endalkachew H/Michael, following today’s hearing the case has been referred to a federal high court. The accused were reportedly not present for the hearing.

This article was posted on July 11, 2014 at