Two months ago, when the Ethiopian parliament quietly passed a Telecom Fraud Offences law, which was meant to criminalize services such as Skype and Google Voice, exiled Ethiopian journalist Abiye Teklemariam wrote on Facebook, “now that independent opinion leaders are emerging and fragmentation is receding, [Zenawi] will shut down Facebook. I give it a year and half.” Some predict a shutdown will come sooner. Should this take place, the only information available to most of the 94 million Ethiopians, including the one percent that is connected to the Internet, will be that which is circulated through state-owned media.
And beyond social media, the government is increasing the number of international websites it blocks. In the past month, Al Jazeera’s main site and the Washington Post joined a long list of websites blocked in Ethiopia. Al Jazeera was blocked following a forum it conducted on the ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia, featuring diaspora-based activists and religious scholars. The Washington Post made the list after the paper wrote about the prime minister’s whereabouts.
Ethiopia’s recent efforts to muzzle the free press within the country, including the banning of Feteh, has received scant coverage internationally. In another recent instance of repression, on July 13 an Ethiopian court handed down lengthy prison terms to journalists and opposition leaders, including award-winning journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for violating anti-terrorism legislation through his writings. And another Feteh staffer, columnist Reeyot Alemu, was sentenced earlier this year to 14 years in prison, after her conviction under a vaguely worded national anti-terror law. Alemu, winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2012 Courage in Journalism and Lifetime Achievement Award, was charged for lending support to an outlawed diaspora-based opposition group. Earlier this month, an appeals court reduced Alermu’s sentence to five years and dropped some of the terrorism charges against her.
Hours after Feteh editor Desalegn was charged on August 1, he described the details of his interrogation in a note posted on his Facebook profile. He said authorities are considering eight charges against him, based on stories that appeared in Feteh going back to 2010. “I spent more than two hours and a half responding to each accusation,” he wrote. In another post, he added: “We will not bow for this kind of intimidation, my colleagues and I are ready to pay any sacrifice to see our struggle [for free press in Ethiopia] fulfilled.”