Addis 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. 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.
The EPRDF came to power when it overthrew a military regime in 1991 and has governed ever since as a coalition of four ethnic parties. Its only serious challenge came in the 2005 elections, but it subsequently reasserted extensive control.
"Even people like me who were optimistic about the emergence of civilised debate and vibrant media and activism have been shocked by these detentions," Merkeb said.
Mikias Sebsibe, a journalist who works for an EPRDF-affiliated media outlet, makes a similar point. "We need to ask the government why it keeps telling us that it upholds the right to freedom of expression but contradicts itself with its actions," he said.
Is it random action by the security forces? Who is in the driving seat?
One person with particular reason to be shocked is Tsedale Lemma, the managing editor of Addis Standard, a monthly magazine that analyses current affairs in the region. She regularly received dispatches from Tesfalem Waldyes, one of the detained journalists. Diminutive and energetic, with a wide grin and oversized backpack, Tesfalem is familiar to many in Addis Ababa's media community.
His detention is "very strange", his editor said, as he is a "meticulous and professional" freelancer. Although he mixed socially with the independent Zone 9 activists, whose writings were more critical and provocative, he wasn't a member, she explains. The other arrested journalists are Asmamaw Hailegeorgis of Addis Guday newspaper and Edom Kassaye, a freelancer.
A journalist and a friend of Tesfalem's, Tsion Girma, is a neighbour in a low-cost apartment complex. She became aware of his plight late on Friday when she got "a massive knock at my door".
"I opened and the guy screamed at me 'Tesfalem is calling for you outside.'" When Tsion asked who was carting him off to the capital's main investigation centre, known as Maekelawi, a man in plain clothes pointed at a uniformed official.
"Now you see they are policemen. That is all you need to know," he said. A government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, told Al Jazeera on Saturday he was not aware of the arrests. Getachew Reda, an adviser to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, said on Tuesday the group was suspected of criminality, without providing further details. Some of the arrested had "a penchant for incitement of violence and unrest", Getachew said.
The plain-clothed individuals were probably from the National Intelligence and Security Services, which investigates political conspiracies. Tsedale worries that intelligence agents have too much power. "You feel that way over the weekend when you're kept in the dark and they're taken to court on Sunday. You feel this government has lost its centre of gravity," she said.
"Is it random action by the security forces? Who is in the driving seat?" Now that a judicial process is under way other officials may not be able to intervene even if they want to, she said.
Ties to foreign groups
It's believed that links between some or all of the arrested with a rights group, Article 19, are being used to justify the crackdown. The UK-registered organisation recently attempted to offer Ethiopian journalists and bloggers training in online journalism security, its East African and Kenyan director, Henry Maina, told Al Jazeera on Monday. But the early April mission to advise on privacy rights and how to prevent hacking ended in Article 19's Patrick Mutahi being detained at Addis Ababa's airport for 29 hours and then deported.
|Some analysts have suggested that the crackdown on journalists is happening because the government is worried about the potential for unrest due to rising prices [AP]
"Restricting our work shows the utter contempt the Ethiopian authorities hold for free speech, press freedom and fundamental human rights," Maina said at the time. The group has worked constructively with the government in the past, offering training to lawyers and judges, he said.
Article 19, on Monday, called for the journalists' "immediate and unconditional release". The US State Department also called for them to be freed, in the same week that Secretary of State John Kerry visits Addis Ababa to meet PM Hailemariam.
"Yes, we may have engaged with some of those people," Maina said. "But we need to ask which of those things we did is unlawful". In April, law enforcement officials told Mutahi that Article 19 didn't have the requisite permissions to operate in Ethiopia, the group said.
The EPRDF government, which welcomes American and European aid while tilting towards China, has long considered Western human rights groups as neo-liberal opponents bent on its overthrow, rather than just a nuisance. The young bloggers and journalists could be in custody because of their association with a group that has recently raised the ire of officials by focusing on electronic surveillance, one reporter believes.
Tsedale, whose magazine offers critiques of government policy, believes the arrests may be a preemptive strike on dissenters that could cause electoral problems for the EPRDF in next May's polls. "My only guess is that the election is coming and these people were seen as becoming influential," she says.
But while the EPRDF is notorious for a ruthless approach to democracy - last time out in 2010, it won all but two parliamentary seats out of 547 - commentators can see little reason for continuing this heavy-handedness. "There's really no reason to feel threatened, there's no viable opposition," Tsedi said. "That's what makes it really meaningless."
One group that can testify to that is the Blue Party, a relatively new organisation that held a successful demonstration last year. They held another protest on Sunday, but preparations were disrupted as 28 of their members, including leaders and key organisers, were arrested late last week, its chairman, Yilkal Getnet, said.
"The political climate through time is becoming narrower and narrower," Yilkal said. It's not yet clear what connection, if any, there is between the arrest of the Blue Party members and the bloggers.
Analysts say despite its electoral strength the EPRDF is wise to ensure it remains the only game in town: Popular discontent over issues like the rising cost of living and poor administration could cause a sudden seismic shift if the opposition was galvanised.
Opinion is mixed on the broader significance of the arrests. Previous outrage at the closure of popular newspaper Addis Neger didn't lead to changes, observers point out. What is clear, however, is the warning to other reporters.
"I've always known being a journalist in Ethiopia isn't a secure job. What has rattled us and our colleagues is the scale of the arrests and the relative obscurity of most of the arrested," an Ethiopian journalist explained to Al Jazeera on Facebook, after requesting anonymity. "It used to be the case that the one who was the most vocal and defiant tended to be arrested, but now even simple, obscure bloggers are behind bars."
Follow William Davison on Twitter: @wdavison10