Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country : Parallels Just before President Obama's visit to Ethiopia last year, jailed bloggers and journalists were suddenly released from prison — a welcome gesture of openness. But their freedom goes only so far.
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Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country

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Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country

Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Obama visited Ethiopia last summer. Just in time for that visit, Ethiopia's government made a gesture of openness.


Five bloggers and journalists got out of jail. The gesture did not last. NPR's Gregory Warner reports what happened after Air Force One departed.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Zelalem Kibret remembers the day - July 8, 2015. He was in the prison library reading a biography of Malcolm X - his own copy - when some guards called his name.

ZELALEM KIBRET: They were calling my name and they gave us a piece of paper and it says your charge against you was withdrawn. And I was asking why and no one was giving us a reason.

WARNER: But he suspected the reason. President Obama was due to pay a visit to Ethiopia in just three weeks.

KIBRET: I believe that our release was a personal gift for the president.

WARNER: A personal gift for Obama.


WARNER: The United States had been pushing for Zelalem's release and the release of his blogging crew known as Zone 9. Zone 9 is a play on the fact that there are eight zones in this infamous prison called Kality where many politicals and journalists are held. Activists joke that the ninth zone is outside the prison walls. That is, the rest of Ethiopia.

KIBRET: Zone 9 is Ethiopia with relative freedom, but still you felt that you are in detention.

WARNER: Some weeks later, Zelalem was enjoying this relative freedom with a cup of coffee in a hotel restaurant watching President Obama's press conference on Ethiopian television.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon (foreign language spoken).

KIBRET: President Obama was saying the Ethiopian government is a democratically-elected government.


OBAMA: Democratically elected.

KIBRET: And that statement was - I mean, it was so bad for - especially for the peoples in prison.

WARNER: That's when Zelalem and his fellow bloggers felt their stomachs sink. That phrase democratically-elected they felt stamped legitimacy on a ruling party that does control 100 percent of Parliament. But at that same press conference, the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, seemed to offer an olive branch to local journalists.


PRIME MINISTER HAILEMARIAM DESALEGN: We need many young journalists to come up but we need ethical journalism. There is also capacity limitations in journalism

WARNER: Ethiopian officials have seized on this phrase capacity building that came out of development lingo in the 1990s. They often claim that journalists get jailed not because they're critical but because they're less professional, more unethical and incendiary than Ethiopia's young democracy can safely handle.


DESALEGN: Maybe those of you who are in developed nations, you can help our journalists to increase their capacity.

WARNER: And at that press conference, President Obama offered an opportunity to do just that.


OBAMA: We welcome Ethiopian students to study in the United States through our Young African Leaders Initiative.

WARNER: So Zelalem followed that advice and he actually was accepted into the Young African Leaders Initiative. This summer, he's supposed to study civic leadership at the University of Virginia.

Are you going to the University of Virginia?

KIBRET: So far I have no travel documents. I don't know but I hope.

WARNER: Zelalem's passport was confiscated by Ethiopian authorities at the airport in November. That's when Zone 9 became more than a metaphor

KIBRET: No one is giving me a reason why I can't travel outside my country.

WARNER: What do they say, just come back next week or something?

KIBRET: We will call you when we want, they say.

WARNER: When I brought this up with the Ethiopian minister of communication, Getachew Reda, he said he did not know Zelalem's case specifically, but he had a different explanation for the blogger's rough treatment at the hands of immigration officials. Ethiopia's young institutions, the minister said, could zealously overstep their bounds. They could even make mistakes. The minister's solution - more capacity building. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

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