By Tadesse Yimer
September 24, 2012
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, but poor infrastructure and a government monopoly over the telecommunications sector have notably hindered the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Consequently, Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration on the continent. Despite low access, the government maintains a strict system of controls and is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide internet filtering.
In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and several online calls for similar demonstrations in Ethiopia, the government reacted by strengthening internet censorship and carrying out a systematic crackdown on independent journalists, including at least one blogger. Beginning in June 2011, over ten journalists were sentenced to long prison terms, mostly on questionable charges of terrorism. Among them was the editor of an exiled online news website who was sentenced in abstentia to life imprisonment. A prominent dissident blogger based in Ethiopia was also arrested in September 2011 and sentenced to 18 years in prison in July 2012. The latest crackdown is part of a broader trend of growing repression against independent media since the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which opposition parties mustered a relatively strong showing.
Internet and mobile phone services were introduced in Ethiopia in 1997 and 1999, respectively. In recent years, the government has attempted to increase access through the establishment of fiber-optic cables, satellite links, and mobile broadband services. It has refused to end exclusive control over the market by the state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC). However, in December 2010 France Telecom took over management of ETC for a two-year period, renaming it Ethio Telecom in the process. China has also emerged as a key investor and contractor in Ethiopia’s telecommunications sector. Given allegations that the Chinese authorities have provided the Ethiopian government with technologies that can be used for political repression, such as surveillance cameras and satellite jamming equipment, some observers fear that the Chinese may assist the authorities in developing more robust internet and mobile phone censorship and surveillance capacities in the coming years.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the Twitter microblogging service are available, though very slow internet speeds make it impossible to access video content. International blog-hosting websites such as Blogger have been frequently blocked since the disputed parliamentary elections of 2005, during which the opposition used online communication to organize and disseminate information that was critical of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In addition, for two years following the 2005 elections, the ETC blocked text-messaging via mobile phones after the ruling party accused the opposition of using the technology to organize antigovernment protests. Text-messaging services did not resume until September 2007.
Around May 26, 2011, on the eve of a planned opposition demonstration inspired by anti-government protests in the Middle East and celebrations for the anniversary of the ruling party coming to power, the internet was cut off for at least half a day. It remained unclear whether the cause of the shutdown was a deliberate government attempt to restrict communication at a sensitive time, a technical problem, or sabotage of a fiber-optic cable. Separately, when high-profile international events, such as a meeting of the African Union, have taken place in Addis Ababa and other major cities, the government has redirected much of the country’s bandwidth to the venues hosting visitors, leaving ordinary users with even slower connections than usual.
Ethiopia is connected to the international internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and another cable that connects through Djibouti to an international undersea cable. In an effort to expand connectivity, the government has reportedly installed several thousand kilometers of fiber-optic cable throughout the country in recent years. There are also plans in place to connect Ethiopia to a global undersea cable network through the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) project. The EASSy project itself was completed and launched in July 2010, but its effects on Ethiopia have yet to be seen.The government has sought to increase access via satellite links for government offices and schools in rural areas. WoredaNet, for instance, connects over 500 woredas, or local districts, to regional and central government offices, providing services such as video conferencing and internet access. Similarly, SchoolNet connects over 500 high schools across the country to a gateway that provides video- and audio-streamed educational programming.The impact of such projects has been limited, however, as internet speeds across these networks remain almost prohibitively slow and outages are common.
The ETC, or Ethio Telecom, retains a monopoly on all telecommunications services, including internet access and both mobile and fixed-line telephony. Connection to the international internet is centralized via Ethio Telecom, from which cybercafes must purchase their bandwidth. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency (ETA) is the primary regulatory body overseeing the telecommunications sector. Although it was established as an autonomous federal agency, in practice the ETA is tightly controlled by the government.
The space for independent initiatives, entrepreneurial or otherwise, is extremely limited. In October 2011, the government announced that earlier in the year, it had begun granting permission to private companies that run internet-dependent operations to acquire and use VSAT links, connections previously restricted only to governmental and international organizations per special authorization. Under the new directive, which has yet to be made public as of May 2012, companies are reportedly permitted to use the technology for their own operations but are barred from providing services to third parties, thereby maintaining Ethio Telecom’s monopoly on public internet access.
Liberalization of the telecommunications sector is expected to greatly increase internet and mobile phone penetration, but the prospects for such loosening remain uncertain. Despite repeated international pressure to do so, the Ethiopian government has been reluctant to ease its grip on the sector. While some observers consider the December 2010 entry of France Telecom as manager of Ethio Telecom to be a potential move toward liberalization, others are skeptical of the government’s commitment to allowing greater public access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). The foreign partnership may simply be an effort to improve service delivery while maintaining the state monopoly. Even so, under the new management, users continue to complain that speeds delivered are lower than advertised, service is regularly interrupted, and the quality of customer assistance has declined, possibly due to loss of morale following layoffs.
By mid-2010, all newly available websites and several others—including the online version of Addis Neger, a leading independent newspaper that was forced to close in December 2009—were temporarily inaccessible again, apparently as part of the government’s broader election-related restrictions on the free flow of information.These websites were blocked for much of 2011, but were briefly unblocked in May 2011, coinciding with a UNESCO event for International Press Freedom Day and the release of a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists criticizing internet censorship in Ethiopia; the timing again reflected the government’s possible efforts to loosen online censorship when under international scrutiny, only to impose it again when the spotlight is removed. By late May, many of the above websites, and some new ones, were blocked again after activists created a Facebook page titled “Beka!” (Enough!) calling for anti-government protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings to take place on May 28, 2011. As of early 2012, the above-mentioned websites, as well as those of Ethsat (an independent exile television station) and Dilethiopia (an opposition website) were inaccessible. Further, an independent test conducted by Freedom House in early 2012 found that 65 websites related to news and views, 14 websites belonging to different Ethiopian political parties, 37 blogs, 7 audio-video websites, and 37 Facebook pages were not accessible in Ethiopia.
In addition to website blocking, some restrictions are also placed on mobile phone text-messaging. In particular, mobile phone users, businesses, and civil society groups are unable to send a message to more than ten recipients without prior approval of its content from Ethio Telecom.
Procedures for determining which websites should be blocked and when are extremely opaque. There is no published list of blocked websites or publicly available criteria for how such decisions are made, and users are met with an error message when trying to access a blocked website. This lack of transparency is exacerbated by the government’s continued denial of its censorship efforts. The decision-making process does not appear to be centrally controlled. Thus, various governmental entities, along with the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) and Ethio Telecom, seem to be implementing their own lists, contributing to the phenomenon of inconsistent blocking.
The increased repression in 2011 against journalists working in traditional media as well as against a number of bloggers has generated a chilling effect in the online sphere. Few Ethiopian journalists work for both domestic print media and as correspondents for overseas online outlets, as this could draw negative repercussions. Many bloggers publish anonymously to avoid reprisals.
In addition to censorship, the authorities use regime apologists, paid commentators, and pro-government websites to proactively manipulate the online news and information landscape. Acrimonious exchanges between a small number of apologist websites and a wide array of diaspora critics and opposition forces have become common in online political debates. Lack of adequate funding represents another challenge for independent online media, as fear of government pressure dissuades Ethiopian businesses from advertising with politically critical websites.
Regime critics and opposition forces in the diaspora increasingly use the internet as a platform for political debate and an indirect avenue for providing information to local newspapers. However, given the low internet penetration rate, the domestic Ethiopian blogosphere is still in its infancy. Blogging initially blossomed during the period surrounding the 2005 parliamentary elections and the subsequent clampdown on independent newspapers. This growth has slowed somewhat since 2007, when the government instituted a blanket block on the domain names of two popular blog-hosting websites, Blogger and Nazret.com. Some political commentators use proxy servers and anonymizing tools to hide their identities when publishing online and to circumvent filtering. Among general internet users, however, circumvention tools are rarely employed, and most people simply forego accessing websites that are blocked.
Over the past two years, the use of social-networking sites, most notably Facebook, as platforms for political deliberation, social justice campaigns, and information sharing has gained momentum. For example, in March 2012 some activists used social media to launch campaigns on behalf of Ethiopian female domestic workers working in the Middle East who were being abused. Nevertheless, many civil society groups based in the country are wary of mobilizing against the government. In February 2011, opposition activists launched the Facebook group “Beka!” (Enough!) calling for a “day of rage” and anti-government protests to be held on May 28. The intention was to have a counter demonstration the same day as a government-sponsored rally celebrating the anniversary of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s rule. No protest materialized, however. This appeared to be because the calls for protest were mostly coming from the Ethiopian diaspora rather than from within the country, as those inside Ethiopia still harbored fear from the bloody crackdown on opposition demonstrations after the 2005 elections and from the most recent round of opposition activist arrests in April 2011 (see “Violations of User Rights”).
Over the course of 2011 and through mid-2012, the Ethiopian government’s already poor treatment of journalists and internet users deteriorated dramatically. A systematic crackdown and series of prosecutions, including over eight Ethiopian journalists and two Swedish reporters, caused many journalists to flee into exile, stripping the country of its last remaining independent voices. In 2011, such repression spread for the first time against bloggers and internet users, with several arrests and at least one prosecution reported.
Constitutional provisions guarantee freedom of expression and media freedom. Nevertheless, in recent years the government has adopted laws—namely the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation—that restrict free expression. According to Human Rights Watch, the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation has some positive aspects, such as a ban on the pretrial detention of journalists. However, it also introduced crippling fines, licensing restrictions for establishing a media outlet, a clause permitting only Ethiopian nationals to establish mass media outlets, and powers allowing the government to impound periodical publications. A criminal code that came into force in May 2005 provides for “special criminal liability of the author, originator or publisher” when writings are deemed to be linked to offenses such as treason, espionage, or incitement; in such instances, the penalty may be life imprisonment or death. Also under the criminal code, publication of a “false rumor” is punishable by up to three years in prison.
In 2009, the government enacted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which includes an overly broad definition of terrorism that gives the authorities wide discretion when suppressing nonviolent dissent. Under the legislation, publication of a statement that is likely to be understood as a direct or indirect encouragement of terrorism is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In 2011, the authorities made extensive use of this law to prosecute a number of individuals who had criticized the government both online and offline, or who had reported on the activities of Ginbot 7, a banned opposition political party that the government has declared a terrorist group. The crackdown generated a notable chilling effect and international condemnation. In September 2011, the well-known dissident blogger Eskinder Nega was arrested on terrorism charges shortly after publishing an online column calling for greater political freedom and criticizing the use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to silence political dissent. Nega was put on trial in March 2012, found guilty of terrorism in July, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. In January 2012, Elias Kifle, editor of the U.S. based Ethiopian Review website known for its fierce criticism of Prime Minister Zenawi, was sentenced in abstentia to life imprisonment. In a lower-profile case, two youth were arrested on charges of terrorism in August 2011 while using the internet in an Addis Ababa cybercafe, likely to visit opposition websites; according to unconfirmed reports, they were later released.
Government surveillance of online and mobile phone communications is a concern in Ethiopia, though there is a lack of concrete evidence as to the scale of such practices. In a series of trials of journalists and bloggers throughout 2011 and early 2012, government prosecutors have presented intercepted emails and phone calls between the journalists as evidence. Upon purchasing a mobile phone, individuals are asked to register their SIM card with their full name, address, and government-issued identification number. Internet subscription account holders also are required to register their personal details, including their home addresses, with the government.
For a period following the 2005 elections, cybercafe owners were required to keep a register of their clients, but this requirement has not been implemented since mid-2010. Nevertheless, there are strong suspicions that cybercafes are required to install software to monitor user activity, which arose after a few incidents were reported of users getting arrested while leaving internet cafes in 2011. The arrests were followed by government warnings that “visiting anti-peace websites using proxy serves is a crime.” The use of such monitoring software remains unconfirmed.
The key government body involved in surveillance is the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), which is suspected of engaging in internet filtering and email monitoring. There have also been reports of the government using technology obtained from the Chinese authorities to monitor phone lines and various types of online communication. According to internal sources working in the industry, INSA is currently testing tools that will enable its officials to mask their identities to acquire user information such as usernames and passwords, which could lead to full-fledged phishing attacks against government opponents in the future. To date, cyberattacks and other forms of technical violence have not been a serious problem in Ethiopia, partly due to the limited number of users.
While it has been common for traditional media journalists in Ethiopia to face considerable harassment and intimidation, leading several to flee the country, prior to 2011 such threats did not affect online activists and bloggers. With the 2011 crackdown against online journalists such as Eskinder Nega, however, dissident bloggers and netizens are beginning to experience increasing levels of intimidation for their work.
Posted by Tadesse Yimer