Zone 9 Bloggers To Speak on Censorship, Repression and Surveillance at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18)

Announcement |
In order to contribute to the democratic discourse in Ethiopia, in May 2012, nine individuals formed the Zone 9 blogging collective – a loose network of activists regularly blogging and campaigning on human and democratic rights. However, two weeks after the launch of the initiative, the Ethiopian government blocked access to the collective’s online platform. In April 2014, six members of the collective were jailed on allegations of working with foreign organisations and rights activists by “using social media to destabilise the country.” The other three members fled into exile.
At the upcoming Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 (FIFAfrica18) members from the collective will share a stage and speak on their experiences of censorship, repression and surveillance. In an hour and half long session, members of the collective will share their stories including the tactics employed by the state to surveil and censor them, their trial, imprisonment for 15-18 months, and post-incarceration trauma. Their participation will serve as a means of raising awareness on the realities of being an activist in a repressive state and life after release from incarceration.
See draft Forum agenda
The collective gets its name from the eight zones of the notorious Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa where political prisoners are housed. The ninth zone is a metaphorical extension of the zones to apply to the rest of the country due to the harsh controls on freedom of speech and association across Ethiopia at the time.
In February 2018, after six years of facing charges that included terrorism and inciting violence, prosecutors in Ethiopia dropped all charges against the last members of the collective that still faced prosecution.  The announcement came as part of ongoing economic and political reforms in the country since the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn in February 2018, and appointment of a new premier, Abiye Ahmed, two months later.
Since then, the government has freed thousands of prisoners; announced measures to liberalise the telecom  sector; and dropped charges against many opposition leaders, bloggers, and activists. Further, the new administration has lifted the state of emergency that had been reinstated in February 2018, reconnected mobile and broadband internet services that were cut off since 2016, and unblocked 246 websites, blogs, and news sites that had been inaccessible for over a decade.
See more about Ethiopia’s reforms.

Who are the Zone 9 Bloggers?

Zelalem Kibret is an Ethiopian scholar and blogger. He was previously a Scholar-at-Risk fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, at New York University School of Law. By training, Zelalem is a lawyer specialised in Public International Law. Until April 2014, he was a Professor of law at Ambo University in Ethiopia.
Among his interests is research which focuses on transitional politics and justice, traditional justice, individuals in international law, counter-terrorism, new social movements, and liberation technology.
Zelalem is the co-recipient of the 2015 Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) International Press Freedom award and the 2015 Reporter Sans Frontieres’ (RSF) Citizen-Journalist award. He earned his LL.M degree from Addis Ababa University in Public International Law.

Nathenael Feleqe Aberra is a co-founding member of Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective. He is an active member of the Ethiopian Economics Association and a full time employee in a financial intuition in Ethiopia  with close to eight years’ experience in Human Resource Management. His interest areas include Economic Development, Democracy and Human Rights.

Jomanex Kasaye | Born and raised in “the jewel of rift valley” – Adama also known as Nazareth located 90 km from the capital Addis Ababa, Jomanex is an Information Technology enthusiast, who has previously worked as a tutor and system administrator in addition to running his own businesses. He is a co-founding member of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective and now lives in exile.

Befekadu Hailu Techane describes himself as a Management Information Systems (MIS) expert by profession who turned a writer by inclination. His novella titled “Children of Their Parents” won the Bill Burt Award for African Literature (Ethiopia) in 2012. He has worked as an editor for Enqu Magazine, editor-in-chief for Weyeyet Magazine and volunteering editor for Global Voices [all in Amharic]. His blogging and activism work has seen him jailed four times – including an 18 month detention period. Befekadu is among the co-founders of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective.
He currently works as a columnist for Duestche Welle Amharic Service, as a freelancing journalist for, an internet TV channel, and part-time program coordinator for Ethiopian Human Rights Project.

Atnafu Brhane is a blogger and human rights activist in addition to being one of the co-founders of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective. He began his career as an IT expert for a local administration office in Ethiopia before joining the collective. He also worked with Article 19 East Africa to give digital security trainings for human rights activists and journalists.
His work with the collective saw him get arrested and charged with terrorism in 2014 following which he spent 18 months in prison. He currently works as Digital Media Coordinator and Campaigner for  the Ethiopia Human Rights Project.

Abel Wabella describes himself as a passionate storyteller, who is fascinated by the commencement of the digital era. As a social media marketer, Abel has developed a sound knowledge of new media tools and techniques. Since he started blogging in 2011, he has engaged in social media activism, humanitarian advocacy, social justice projects, localisation and business projects.
As such, Abel shifted his career interests from mechanical engineering into the media arena. His work saw him detained, which served to further fuel his activism. Abel has a vast virtual office experience and is a member of the Global Voices volunteer community of more than 1,400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators, which localises its content into 40 languages including Amharic. He is also a co-founder of the Zone 9 Activists and Blogging collective.
Abel is currently working on newly established media called Gobena Street.

The Reforms Ethiopia Needs to Advance Internet Freedom

Policy Brief |
Since April 2018, the new Ethiopian government has been undertaking unprecedented political and economic reforms. This follows countrywide protests that forced the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to resign in February 2018, leading to the appointment of a young and charismatic new premier, Abiye Ahmed two months later. Since then, the government has freed thousands of prisoners; announced measures to liberalise the telecom, aviation, and transportation sectors; and dropped charges against many opposition leaders, bloggers, and activists. Further, the new administration has lifted the state of emergency that had been reinstated in February 2018, reconnected mobile and broadband internet services that were cut off since 2016, and unblocked 246 websites, blogs, and news sites that have been inaccessible for over a decade.
These changes in Ethiopia did not come at a whim. The protests that started in November 2015 in the Oromia region spread to other parts of the country. In response to these protests, the previous government continuously blocked social media sites and implemented national and regional internet blackouts, often claiming it aimed to safeguard national security or to stem cheating during national exams. Consequently, the Oromia region lost internet connectivity for two weeks in March 2018, three weeks before the new prime minister was sworn in. Moreover, as access to the internet deteriorated in the country, the government criminalised freedom of expression online and offline. The arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of members of the Zone Nine bloggers collective showed how far the government was willing to go to suppress dissenting voices.
The new Prime Minister and his cabinet have promised to open the democratic space in the country and expand freedom of expression online and offline. However, these reforms should go beyond the unblocking of a few hundred websites; they should bring in real changes that will make it impossible to regress to old habits. Therefore, reforms to be implemented must expand internet penetration from the current 15%, to the larger offline majority. Laws that prosecute freedom of expression online and offline like the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Computer Crime Proclamation must undergo substantial revisions to meet international standards. Further, the changes within the law enforcement and intelligence agencies should go beyond replacing old officials with new ones, but must tame the undue power given to these bodies to conduct unwarranted surveillance and censorship of netizens. Lastly, the new government should desist from internet shutdowns and censorship.
See this brief titled The Reforms Ethiopia Needs to Advance Internet Freedom which gives a detailed description of prevailing challenges to internet freedom in Ethiopia and proposed reforms the Ethiopian government needs to undertake to improve internet freedom in the country.

In Search of Local Knowledge on ICTS in Africa

By reviewing and comparing literature on the role of ICTs in statebuilding and peacebuilding in Africa, with a particular focus on neighboring Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, this paper examines whether the claims of the transformative power of ICTs are backed by evidence and whether local knowledge – e.g., traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution – is taken into consideration by ICT-based initiatives. Several key findings emerged, including: 1) empirical evidence on the successful use of ICTs to promote peacebuilding and statebuilding is thin; 2) few differences exist between scholarship emanating from the Global North and from Africa; and 3) the literature exhibits a simplistic assumption that ICTs will drive democratic development without sufficient consideration of how ICTs are actually used by the public.
Download the full paper here. New Portal on ICTs, State and Peace Building Research in Africa

Although the use of Information and Communication Technologies by citizens and governments in Africa is growing exponentially, there is limited evidence of how these technologies are affecting statebuilding and peace building on the continent. Where such evidence exists, it is often in diverse locations and hard to reach for researchers, practitioners, the media and government bodies.
In order to increase access to information on ICTs in Africa, the Centre for Global Communications Studies (CGCS) at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a new website that offers news and updates on research and events related to ICTs, peace building and governance. The portal features a repository of reports and articles with empirical evidence on the role of ICTs in peace building and governance.
In addition, the website offers access to articles typically blocked by journal paywalls by obtaining pre-print versions of articles from authors.
As a partner in CGCS’s project titled “Reframing Local Knowledge: ICTs, State building, and Peace building in Eastern Africa”, CIPESA undertook a review of literature on the role of ICTs in governance, peace-building and state-building in Africa, with a focus on three neighbouring countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
An increasing number of Africa’s estimated one billion people are accessing modern communication technologies. According to the International Telecommunications Union, as of 2013, internet penetration stood at 16% and mobile access at 63% of Africa’s population.
It follows that online service provision, placing a wide array of information in the public domain, an empowered citizenry that holds leaders to account and smartly embrace ICT, could potentially catalyse peace, democracy and good governance in Africa.
There is a considerable amount of research by scholars, government agencies, civil society, development partners and many more on the use of ICTs in governance in Africa, covering a broad range of definitions and dimensions. A central place to find this research has hitherto been lacking, which is why scholars, practitioners and public officials will find the new portal a vital resource.
The work for the project is being carried out in collaboration with the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) at the University of Oxford, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore University (Kenya), the School of Journalism and Communication at Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), CIPESA, The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies and SIMAD University (Somalia).
Read more about the project here.

Online Freedoms Under Siege as African Countries Seek Social Media Users’ Information

Only a small fraction of requests made by law enforcement officials to Facebook, Google and Twitter for users’ identities or to block content originate from Africa, but there is cause to worry.
Facebook, whose popularity across Africa is growing exponentially, lists Botswana, Egypt, Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Uganda among the countries that requested users’ details in the first half of 2013. Meanwhile, last year saw seven African countries ask Google to remove content compared to only one request from the continent – by Libya – in 2010 and 2011. The beauty is that most of those requests were rejected.
No African country made a request for user account information either to Google or Twitter in the first half of 2013.
In the first half of 2013, Botswana made three requests to Facebook related to seven users.  Egypt had eight requests regarding 11 accounts, the Ivory Coast lodged four requests, Uganda one request and South Africa 14 requests on nine users. All requests from Africa were denied.
Table 1: Facebook Data Requests (By Author from Facebook Global Government Requests Report)

Country Total Requests Users/Accounts requested Compliance rate
Botswana 3 7 0%
Egypt 8 11
Ivory Coast 4 4
Uganda 1 1
South Africa 14 9
Global Highest
India 3,245 4,144 50%
United States of America 11,000 – 12,000 20,000 – 21,000 79%

Eight African countries have made at least one content removal request to Google since 2010. Djibouti’s 2012 request to block YouTube videos containing the movie Innocence of Muslims on the grounds of “religious offense” was rejected. But a similar request by Egypt was temporarily complied with, because of the “difficult circumstances” in this country at the time.
Meanwhile, a Kenyan request to remove content from blogger, arising out of a court order in a defamation case, was rejected. The Island nation of Mauritius made two content removal requests in the first half of 2012. Both were for reasons of defamation; both were rejected. Madagascar’s two requests were court-mandated on defamation grounds but Google accepted only one. Sierra Leone made one request regarding 60 items on Youtube which it wanted blocked as they portrayed or promoted violence. Google declined the request, which was made by executive not court order.
In the first half of 2012, South Africa had three court-ordered removal requests related to 11 items and Google fully complied. In the second half of 2012, Pretoria made three court ordered requests related to eight items and 33% was complied with. All South African requests were related to defamation.
Previous Google reports show that in the period July – December 2010, Libya made 68 requests for a total of 203 items to be removed from Youtube. Of these requests, 31% were complied with, either by some or all of the content being removed. In the subsequent six months, Libya’s two requests regarding five items were denied. All of Libya’s requests were not backed by a court order
South Sudan, the continent’s youngest nation, is the only African country that made a user information request to Twitter between July and December 2012. Juba’s request was denied.

A Catalogue of Infringements
While only a handful of African countries are making these requests, there is nonetheless evidence of a worrying trend, in which African countries are taking both legal and non-legal measures to curtail the freedoms of individuals to express themselves on the internet.

The last year has seen a spiral of activity against online freedom of expression in numerous African countries. In fact, 2013 might go down as a record year in terms of curtails on internet rights on the continent.
Gambia has passed a law under which those who publish “false news” online about the government can be handed a 15 year jail term and fined up to US$90,000. Meanwhile, Zambia president Michael Sata’s government in July blocked access to the Zambian Watchdog website, accusing it of promoting hate speech. Two journalists arrested on suspicion of working with the online publishers were due to appear in court. Another website, Zambia Reports, was blocked too. Some observers said blocking the websites was part of the government’s campaign to silence independent critics.
Next door in Zimbabwe, security agencies spent several weeks in the run-up to the July 2013 general elections looking for ‘Baba Jukwa’, whose Facebook page published popular exposes of the excesses of President Robert Mugabe’s government. Three weeks before election day, there were reports Mr. Mugabe’s machinery had staked a US$300,000 bounty to unearth the identity of the whistleblower as it moved to block access to the site.
There have also been cases of bloggers charged in court in Kenya and others sought by authorities over their Facebook, blogger and Twitter posts, amidst concerns that authorities were infringing citizens’ right to free expression. The country also asked internet intermediaries to monitor their traffic for messages deemed “inflammatory” or “divisive” in a move some observers believed could be an invasion of privacy. Kenya has also ordered the blocking of access to some websites, such as Mashada.
Burundi – always a high-flying culprit in clamping on free expression – in May ordered the online newspaper to block readers’ comments for 30 days, after accusing it of publishing comments that violated media law on “national unity, public order and security, inciting ethnic hatred, defending criminal activity and insulting the head of state.”
Perhaps more than any other country in Africa, Ethiopia regularly blocks websites, undertakes surveillance of websites and social media, and charges journalists over content published offline and online. In May 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and 18-year prison sentence for journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, convicted last year of “terrorism acts” related to his writing. The state-run telecom monopoly Ethiopia Telecom has for many years been used to filter content and hundreds of websites remain blocked. These include blogs and websites of a number of recently convicted individuals, news organisations, political parties, bloggers, and international organisations.
In Uganda, where authorities have in the past ordered internet service providers to block access to certain websites and services, the government announced it would form a social media monitoring center “to weed out those who use this media to damage the government and people’s reputations” and also targeted at those “bent to cause a security threat to the nation.” Many other countries on the continent have variously interfered with citizen’s internet rights – many times unjustifiably.
The number of requests made by African countries is therefore not reflective of the state of online freedom on the continent. This is because most governments have unilateral means of dealing with situations they do not like, without going through multilateral intermediaries. As we are witnessing, they can enact national legislations, issue uncontested orders to local intermediaries, or use extra-legal measures.
With more people on the continent getting online (mobile penetration in Africa stands at 63%, internet usage at 16% of the population), governments are likely to infringe more on citizens’ online freedoms. A challenge then is to promote awareness about protecting and promoting online freedoms. There is also a need to continuously promote responsible user behaviour online, as not all state efforts to monitor citizens’ actions online are unjustifiable.
Download the full OpenNet Africa Brief here.
To learn more about CIPESA’s OpenNet Africa project and its monitoring of online freedoms, or to share an idea or report a violation, write to: [email protected].