ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia said Tuesday several people had been arrested on charges of "serious criminal activities", but rights groups identified those detained as journalists and bloggers targeted in a sweeping crackdown against free speech.
"They are suspected of some serious crimes, and the police are investigating," government spokesman Getachew Reda told AFP, without providing details of the alleged crimes.
The journalists and a group of bloggers known as "Zone 9" were arrested last week, prompting an outcry from rights groups.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the arrests "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, activists, journalists and political opponents." Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch said the "arrests signal, once again, that anyone who criticises the Ethiopian government will be silenced", and called for their immediate release.
The arrests come ahead of a visit this week by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
"The timing of the arrests - just days before the US Secretary of State's visit - speaks volumes about Ethiopia's disregard for free speech," Lefkow added.
The bloggers Zone 9 website, reportedly named after the prison where political detainees are held, listed the names of nine people arrested, saying they were charged with having worked with foreign human rights activists to foment violence or instability.
But the government dismissed the rights groups, and said those arrested were not detained for their work as journalists.
"We don't take orders from Human Rights Watch," Getachew said.
Free speech 'a crime'
opposition group staged a protest on Sunday following the arrests, calling for "greater liberties and a true democracy" in Ethiopia, but police shut the 200-person demonstration down soon after it started.
HRW said 20 members of the political opposition Semayawi or "Blue" party have also been arrested since Friday, although there has been no official confirmation of exact numbers.
"With the latest arrests, Ethiopian authorities are turning the peaceful exercise of free expression into a crime," the CPJ's Tom Rhodes said in a statement.
Amnesty said the group had only restarted blogging last week after suspending their work for the past six months, accusing the government of harassment.
Ethiopia has been accused of cracking down on independent media and has doled out several heavy sentences for journalists charged under the controversial anti-terror legislation, which rights groups have called vague and far-reaching.
"With still a year to go before the general elections, the Ethiopian government is closing any remaining holes in its iron grip on freedom of speech, opinion and thought in the country," said Amnesty's Claire Beston.
In 2011, two Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years in jail under the law, but were later pardoned after serving 15 months.
Ethiopia has one of the most closed press environments in the world, the CPJ says. It calculates that at least 49 journalists have been forced into exile, the third worst after Somalia and Iran.