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Bloggers Behind Bars: Ethiopia's Zone9ers and Threats to Online Speech Across the Globe

CENSORSHIP“We want more openness, more transparency,” Ethiopian writer Endalkchew Chala told me in a phone interview. “People deserve choice; people deserve access to the world’s knowledge.” For expressing views like these online, his friends were scheduled to go on trial for terrorism in early August—though the trial was later adjourned to October 15. It briefly reconvened last week then adjourned again until early November.

In July, Ethan Zuckerman wrote a detailed post here on Global Voices describing the origins of the Zone 9 bloggers collective, and why they chose that name, and the implications of their case in Ethiopia. In a nutshell, two years ago Endalk (as his friends and colleagues like to call him) got together with several like-minded young Ethiopian writers and journalists to launch a hard-hitting blog called “Zone9.” The blog’s name derives from Addis Ababa’s infamous Kaliti prison, divided into eight zones with political prisoners confined to Zone Eight. They chose the name Zone9 intending to suggest that the entire nation was becoming a virtual prison—effectively a ninth zone. “All of Ethiopia is part of it,” explains Endalk. In 2011, one inmate, journalist Eskinder Nega, was arrested for the seventh time after writing a column, which ironically criticized the Ethiopian government’s habit of arresting journalists on terrorism charges.

Such edginess was too much for their government to take. Six of the Zone9 bloggers were arrested this past April. Three months later, they were formally charged with terrorism and “related activities.” Endalk, pursuing a graduate degree in Portland, Oregon when the arrests took place, is now their informal spokesperson, blogging and tweeting the latest developments. The group’s alleged crimes include attending trainings by international technical experts on how to use software tools to shield themselves from electronic surveillance. They are also accused of clandestinely organizing themselves into a blogger collective—a bizarre accusation given that Zone9 is a public website. 

For the past two years, Endalk and four other Zone9 members also ran the Amharic edition of Global Voices Online. The group translated to Amharic (the dominant local language in Ethiopia) Global Voices posts written by contributors from around the world—particularly those related to activism, freedom of expression, and censorship— of strong relevance to an Ethiopian audience whose state-controlled media is heavily censored.

Bars around the world

The Zone9 bloggers are not the only Global Voices contributors who recently found themselves behind bars, as governments in a growing list of nations have recognized that modern-day connectivity can prove a lethal challenge to their legitimacy and very existence.

Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian-Palestinian computer engineer and open Internet advocate, has been imprisoned in Damascus since March 2012. Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian activist and blogger arrested in November 2013 for violating Egypt’s new Protest Law, was dealt a 15-year jail sentence along with 25 other activists this past June. He is currently free on bail, but already facing new legal challenges allegedly due to his behavior while in prison. Tajik author Alex Sodiqov—a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto—was arrested while carrying out academic research in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikstan. Eventually he was accused of espionage. While he has since been released and allowed to return to Canada, he has yet to be cleared of the charges.

The idea for the Global Voices network came out of a 2004 meeting of bloggers from around the world. It was a time of heady optimism, when bloggers seemed poised to break down barriers and help create a better world. We created a website with the tagline “The world is talking. Are you listening?” As our manifesto put it:

“Thanks to new tools, speech need no longer be controlled by those who own the means of publishing and distribution, or by governments that would restrict thought and communication. Now, anyone can wield the power of the press. Everyone can tell their stories to the world.” 

We recruited editors and volunteers from across the globe who helped to curate, translate, and contextualize what bloggers were saying about their countries and regions—what they were observing in their communities, and how people around them were reacting to world events. Eventually, the site came to be translated back and forth in over two dozen languages, mainly by volunteers like the Zone9ers.

Digital connectivity can indeed be revolutionary. In the 21st century, networked technologies are a necessary condition for social and political change. But over the past decade we’ve learned they are insufficient on their own to prevent widespread and systematic human rights violations–let alone bring about a more democratic and just world.

Battling empowerment

Governments are fighting back against the Internet’s empowering, decentralized character. They are upgrading their own institutional, military, and technical power. They are passing laws criminalizing various forms of online speech and enforcing those laws with police, security, and intelligence forces. Law enforcement and intelligence services of democracies, as well as dictatorships, are pushing their powers of surveillance to the limit. Many governments are also finding new and creative ways to control through their legal and technical powers what people can and especially cannot do on the Internet and with mobile devices.

The Ethiopian government is a case in point. It has revised the law so that practically anybody who uses the Internet to build a movement around a common ideal, or conduct independent journalism, can potentially be charged with terrorism. Internet access is available only through the state-controlled monopoly, Ethio Telecom, which keeps prices artificially high and beyond the reach of most. Those who can access the Internet do so through heavily monitored cybercafés. They must navigate censorship of overseas dissident websites, and face pervasive surveillance thanks to technologies purchased not only from Chinese companies but from European firms like Gamma, a German company that sells remote monitoring systems, and Hacking Team, an Italian firm specializing in spyware.

Anything the Zone9 bloggers ever did online can potentially be used against them without constraint.

The attack by governments on Internet freedom is by no means limited to authoritarian dictatorships. This year, alongside the usual suspects like North Korea, Cuba, and China, Reporters Without Borders listed the Indian government’s Centre for Development of Telematics as one of the 20 biggest “enemies of the Internet,” thanks to its role in developing a clandestine mass electronic surveillance and data mining program for deployment on nationwide networks.

The United Kingdom also made the list, winning the title “world champion of surveillance,” due largely to the work of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which has developed the world’s largest data collection and communications-monitoring system. Last month the British authorities invoked emergency powers to pass a new law allowing the government to issue warrants to companies for data stored outside UK jurisdiction—effectively legalizing its already sweeping technical power to spy on much of the world. As former NSA contractor Edward Snowden put it, “they are worse than the U.S.”

The problem has been compounded by Internet and telecommunications companies pursuing short-term business interests 
without considering 
the impact of their 
behavior on Internet 
users’ rights. We have 
all unfortunately allowed companies to 
track, collect, and
 sell vast amounts of
 personal information
 without even realizing what was happening. As American
 security guru Bruce
 Schneier likes to say: “Surveillance is the 
business model of the Internet.”

How convenient for the NSA, which, until Snowden blew the whistle, had relatively easy access to the communications and stored data of U.S. Internet companies. Now many of these companies have recognized that this situation is not actually sustainable for their business in the long run. Without basic levels of trust from individuals and businesses that rely on the Internet, its platforms, and networks, the economic value of the Internet (along with its political and social value) will diminish over time. That is precisely why major companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are now calling publicly for legal limitations on the NSA’s powers, as well as increased government transparency on matters of surveillance.

Cybersovereigns

These sovereigns of cyberspace—an apt term because of the rules and parameters they set on their services, on which we have come increasingly to depend—have become a form of transnational private governance. The Internet is replete with corporate and government gatekeepers. It’s patrolled by a variety of virtual police seeking to enforce government laws and company terms of service. These gatekeepers and police must be held publicly accountable in a way that can constrain them from abusing their power.

It is up to all of us, as citizens of nations and as denizens of a globally interconnected Internet, to keep pushing for accountability in how our digital lives are shaped and governed by all who wield power over us. If digital connectivity is to fulfill its clear potential, nations’ legal frameworks governing Internet companies, as well as users, must embrace the protection and exercise of basic human rights. The technical standards and business practices of companies must be compatible with the kind of open, democratic world we seek to create.

We are far from reaching that goal, but some important steps are being taken in the right direction. Legal reform efforts to curb government surveillance powers in the United States are making headway. Initiatives are being built to hold tech companies to basic human rights standards, including freedom of expression and privacy. Global Voices is working with a worldwide community of people ready to fight for their online freedoms, working with other trans-national groups advocating an open Internet. 

As we think globally, those of living in democratic countries must not forget that Internet freedom starts at home. If we cannot figure out how to constrain government and corporate power over digital networks people depend on, we should prepare to join our Ethiopian friends in Zone9.

Also read: The Zone 9 Bloggers Are Writing From the Outer Ring of the Prison, the Nation Itself

This post was originally published in the World Policy Journal's 2014 Fall edition Connectivity. 

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