ADDIS ABABA — Authorities in Ethiopia have arrested nine journalists and bloggers and charged them with working with a foreign organization to incite public violence.
Six bloggers and three journalists were taken into police custody late last week after their houses were searched. They appeared in court Sunday morning and were informed of the charges against them: working with a foreign organization that claims to be a human rights group and agreeing to incite public violence through social media.
According to Lily Yekoye, a friend of one of the jailed journalists, friends and family are being denied access to their loved ones.
“After we found out about his arrest Friday night, we went on Saturday morning to drop him breakfast and they told us that they are not allowed to have visitors," she said. "We can only drop the meal at the gate. That was what was happening both Saturday and Sunday, we just dropped the meals.”
Journalist Tsion Girma, a neighbor of arrested journalist Tesfalem Weldeyes, was present when Tesfalem was taken away by nine men in civilian clothes and two in police uniforms. She said she was very surprised by the arrest.
“He is not an activist, he is a professional journalist," she said, adding that she was surprised by the arrest. "I known him for the last 10 years, we worked together.”
The bloggers are from a collective called Zone 9, whose activities the journalists had suspended in recent months, citing harassment. Last week they announced plans to restart their online activities.
The court case against the bloggers and journalists has been adjourned until May 7.
About 40 supporters of the opposition Blue Party were also arrested on Thursday and Friday when preparing for a demonstration that was held Sunday.
Twelve have been released, including party chairman Yilkal Getnet, who says 28 party members are still in police custody for promoting the demonstration.
“But when we tried to promote and distribute flyers for the demonstration, the sub-city police denied us and restricted us by saying they don’t have any information whether this demonstration is legal or not,” he said.
The Blue Party said it had sought government approval to hold the rally.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized the arrests, saying they "appear to be yet another alarming round-up of opposition or independent voices.”
An adviser to Ethiopia's prime minister, Getachew Redda, says there is "no crackdown of any sort" but adds the arrested people are criminal suspects.
He also stated that "simply because someone says inflammatory remarks on Twitter or Facebook, doesn’t make them journalists" — but added that if journalists are involved in any criminal activity, "they will be investigated and arrested."
Ethiopia holds its next national elections in May 2015. About nine months before the 2010 elections there were also many arrests in a single week, including that of prominent blogger Eskinder Nega.