Story by Kyle Hentschel (SOJC student)
It was 2 a.m. in Eugene, Oregon, when Endalk Chala received a message that his fellow bloggers were being arrested in Ethiopia. On April 25, 2014, plain-clothed government agents arrived at the bloggers’ homes and offices, taking them to solitary confinement and then prison, where they would be starved and tortured.
The final message from blogger Zelalem Kibret read, “They are knocking. Tell the world that we are being arrested for what we have been doing.”
Unable to help his friends abroad, Chala experienced a familiar sinking feeling. The Ethiopian government had sent him 31 pages of his own telephone conversations before he came to the University of Oregon in September of 2013—they knew everything and they were coming for him. If he had remained in the country much longer, he would be in prison too.
Nearly a year after the arrests, Chala, a doctoral student at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), is studying the media framework of his country and campaigning for the imprisoned bloggers, hoping that someday he can return home to freedom.
“I don’t have a country anymore, unless the government changes their position,” Chala says. “This is going to be my home for several years.”
Chala was the co-founder of the blogging collective called Zone 9, a name that references Kaliti, one of Ethiopia’s notorious prisons. Kaliti has eight zones, and many refer to the rest of Ethiopia as the ninth zone, as if the entire country is a prison. The Zone 9 bloggers published critical content about freedom of speech and freedom of expression in Ethiopia, which is unacceptable within the government’s anti-terrorism laws.
Stuck in a situation where he can’t return home without being imprisoned, Chala has worked tirelessly over the past year to spread the word of the Zone 9 bloggers. But this steadfast campaigning was not without first conquering his own emotions.
“There is a survivor’s guilt,” Chala says. “We did the same thing, but as a matter of chance, I survived and they are suffering. You feel bad about it. I was trying to get away from that feeling for a long time, and it was very hard for me.”
Gabriela Martinez, an associate professor at the SOJC and Chala’s adviser, has been working closely with Chala for the past year, developing a website for human rights in journalism. She remembers his resilience.
“When members of his blogging collective were put in prison, he was totally destroyed,” Martinez said. “But immediately, his reaction was to organize globally through new technologies. He created a whole campaign and, in a matter of days, the response to that campaign was huge around the world.”
Chala created a blog#mce_temp_url# and a Wikipedia page, while also spreading the message with #FreeZone9Bloggers through social media. He also sparked conversations in the international blogging community through Global Voices, a citizen journalism platform. Since the arrests, the story of the six bloggers arrested has reached major media outlets including BBC, Al-Jazeera, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg and NPR.
While his extensive campaign for freedom has successfully raised awareness about the Zone 9 bloggers, the circumstances in his home country remain unchanged.
Ethiopia enforces some of the strongest surveillance laws in the world. While less than two percent of the population uses the Internet, the government has still developed a strict system of removing the more progressive voices from media and web platforms.
Teddy Workneh, a post-doctoral student at the SOJC and Ethiopian citizen, has researched Ethiopia’s media infrastructure and discovered there are more journalists in prison than there are in Ethiopian newsrooms.
“In many ways, bloggers like Endalk and the Zone 9 bloggers are taking the place of journalists to inform and educate the public,” says Workneh, who believes bloggers have become essential to providing alternative, uncensored information.
Ethiopia operates an authoritarian government with a democratic façade. By giving the impression of a democracy, the country receives money from the United States and the European Union, according to Chala’s research. This funding perpetuates the false freedom Ethiopia has constructed.
People rarely speak freely in this system. If they do, it’s not without glancing over their shoulders in fear of someone hearing, which was a conditioned response Chala learned to let go of living in the United States.
“When I was in Ethiopia walking down the streets, especially when it was dark, I always expected someone to say ‘stop’ or ‘halt,’ because I had been receiving that kind of order from security people my entire life,” Chala says. “I got used to that, and when I walk here at night, I expect someone to say that.”
Experiencing such simple freedoms further inspires Chala to work toward creating that type of environment for his counterparts across the globe. Through his work, he hopes others can share the same understanding of what freedom means and what it feels like.
Balancing his role as an activist with the heavy coursework of doctoral studies does not allow for much sleep, especially if he is connecting with people from Ethiopia, which is ten hours behind. But his passion and hopes for the future keep him afloat as he continues to raise awareness and push for change.
“It is not easy, but I am surviving,” Chala says. “I will be OK.”