ADDIS ABABA, May 8 – Six Ethiopian journalists and bloggers accused of “serious crimes” appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday in a case that has been condemned internationally as an assault on press freedom.
None have yet been charged, defence lawyer Amaha Mekonen said, adding that the court in Addis Ababa had lifted a ban on the detainees speaking to the outside world, including lawyers and family.
On April 25 and 26, six members of the blogging collective Zone Nine and three journalists were arrested by police, with the government saying they were being investigated for “serious crimes”, without elaborating.
Police requested more time to investigate computers seized from the detainees, Amaha said.
The arrests prompted an outcry from rights groups, with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calling them “one of the worst crackdowns against free expression” in the country, while Amnesty International said it was part of a “long trend of arrests and harassment of human rights defenders.”
Ethiopia has one of the most closed press environments in the world, the CPJ says, with at least 49 journalists forced into exile — a figure only beaten by Iran and Somalia.
Ethiopia has also been accused of cracking down on independent media and doling out heavy sentences for journalists under controversial anti-terror legislation.
The six in court Wednesday will next appear in court again on May 17. The remaining three are due in court on Thursday.
“It is the court’s responsibility to follow up with the police as to whether the detainees are being treated respectfully,” Amaha said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Ethiopia to allow greater freedoms for civil society and journalists, during a visit last week, expressing concern for the group.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has condemned the arrests, warning the country is increasingly muzzling freedom of expression under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Journalists, friends and families of the detainees, as well as foreign diplomats, crowded the court compound on Wednesday.
The three journalists are Tesfalem Waldyes, who writes for the weekly English-language business newspaper Fortune, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, an editor at the Amharic-langauge magazine Addis Guday, and Edom Kassaye, who worked previously for the daily Addis Zemen newspaper.
The bloggers are Zelalem Kibret, a university lecturer, Atnaf Berhane, a computer professional, and Natnail Feleke, an economist.