The Curious Case of Zone9 Prisoners
(By Abiye Teklemariam)
Inside the compound that hosted the old timber and mud Arada courthouse, there was the traditional melee associated with high-profile political trials – rain shelters flowing with friends and families of the defendants…
wearing woebegone looks; angry radical anti-status quo activists rubbing shoulders with slipshod government informants; a coterie of bored western diplomats who would rather be somewhere else; journalists too afraid to take pictures. Outside, as they often do in these circumstances, people strolled casually about their business, either ignorant of or unstirred by the politico-legal drama taking place. The courthouse itself has been witness to a significant number of these events in the last twenty two years. It is where Ethiopia’s authoritarian government that is obsessed with procedural rituals and legal theatrics customarily begins its often drawn out prosecutorial playacting against political prisoners. Indeed, the dilapidated state of the building coupled with the striking contrast between its declared and real purpose evokes a mental drawing of Chris Wiman’s “the ramshackle house on high exposed hill which sings with the wind that is steadily destroying it.”
On May 7, 2014, the victims of yet another performance were six members of a blogging collective called Zone9 and three journalists. Hand-cuffed and escorted by gun-wielding guards, the prisoners arrived at the courthouse. Many of them were well-known by those who follow and engage in Ethiopian politics for their courageous dissent and skillful use of social media networks for activism and polemics. The most popular among them, Zelalem Kibret, a young academic, often laced his political commentaries with utterly nacreous wit, eliciting grudging affection even among some whose political views had been at the end of his smackdowns.
Against this background, it is tempting to see the episode as another routine attack on dissent. But there is a difference that sets it apart from sui generis Ethiopian political trials. The Ethiopian government is the master of the mechanics of power-law repression. Its regular targets are either base activists, who can be arrested and tortured, without a squeak from international partners, or oppositionists of political influence – leaders and opinion makers in organized groups, journalists with polemics of electricity. The unceasing glare of publicity and noise of disapproval that follows each attack on the latter is worth the price of their silence.
Zone 9 bloggers do not belong to these categories. They have been avowedly, even belligerently, independent of any of the existing organized opponents of the regime. It is also hard to detect an internal strategic or ideological unity and coherence or any attempt to reach there. Collectively, they have campaigned and published irregularly. Neither could one find, beyond a broad support to democracy and equality, a clear thematic thread that connected their individual concerns. Most importantly, their arena of operation, online participatory media, remains a remote enclave in Ethiopian politics that should be carefully monitored but not yet feared. So what explains the deviation from the traditional approach?
The answer probably lies in understanding what was anticipated but did not happen in the immediate aftermath of the death of Meles Zenawi, the country’s longstanding leader.
(The full text of this article written in recognition of the first anniversary of the imprisonment of Zone9 bloggers and journalists is available on 7-Kilo Magazine)