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Press Freedom for Ethiopian Bloggers Tested Again

FILE - Ethiopian journalists hold placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi, May 2, 2006.

Abel Wabela, 29, and eight other bloggers and freelance journalists spent more than a year and a half in prison. They were acquitted five months ago, but life has not been easy since.

"We cannot go abroad,” Wabela said, “getting a job is very difficult. We are not allowed to work, not allowed to move."

Wabela previously worked at Ethiopian Airlines as an engineer, but it will not take him back. His left ear is no longer functional, he says, due to mistreatment in prison.

In addition, the bloggers' passports have been confiscated.

Back in court

Wabela was one of six bloggers and three affiliated freelance journalists who were arrested in April 2014. They were accused under the anti-terrorism law of using social media to incite violence in Ethiopia.

Although all the bloggers and journalists were acquitted, the prosecutor appealed their release. For that reason, they have to appear Tuesday in Ethiopia's Supreme Court.

Atnaf Berahane says that even though he has been out of prison for five months, he lives in a state of fear.

"After my release I basically do nothing, because I know that every move I make will be traced,” Berahane said. “I am afraid that I may go to prison. The appeal is going on, so the appeal is like a chain to me right now. I am preparing myself for prison."

Imprisonment called unacceptable

Ethiopia is frequently criticized by human rights organizations on its press freedom record. The government states that those imprisoned are criminals using journalism as a cover.

Zone 9 is a reference to an Ethiopian state prison with eight zones; the bloggers use Zone 9 to indicate the larger "prison" they feel makes up the rest of the country.

Africa researcher Kerry Paterson of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says the possible return of the bloggers to jail is unacceptable and a huge blow to press freedom in Ethiopia.

"The Zone 9 bloggers, their tagline has always been that they blog because they care,” Paterson said. “These are young people who are deeply committed to seeing a safer, freer, better, more democratic Ethiopia, and who have faced repression and crackdowns on every turn."

Despite the belief by the bloggers that their future in Ethiopia is bleak and uncertain, Wabela, Berahane and the others are still blogging. The decision by Ethiopia's Supreme Court on the appeal will mean they either must go back to prison, or can continue writing.