Ethiopia’s leader promised to protect freedom of expression. But he keeps flicking the internet kill switch

By Samuel Woodhams, CNN

In this videograb released by the Ethiopian TV broadcast, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the public on television on June 23, 2019 after a failed coup. PHOTO | HO | ETHIOPIAN TV | AFP

(CNN)Abel Wabella is no stranger to the dangers of pursuing digital activism in Ethiopia.

In 2014 he was charged under a controversial anti-terrorism law, which has been described as providing the state with “unnecessarily far-reaching powers” by Amnesty International.
Wabella spent over a year in jail because of his role as co-founder of Zone9, a blogging collective that highlighted human rights abuses, corruption and political repression in the country.
It wasn’t until 2018, during a period of mass reform and resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, that the final charges were dropped against the group’s members.
“When Abiy Ahmed came to power, he released journalists, re-branding the country as one with a bright future,” Wabella said.
As well as freeing journalists, Prime Minister Abiy also released political prisoners, unblocked hundreds of websites, and appointed women to half of his cabinet posts.
The changes were part of a new agenda, which he pledged would respect freedom of expression. “In a democratic system, the government allows citizens to express their ideas freely without fear,” he said in April 2018.

Unreliable connections

During the past month, however, there have been several nationwide internet blackouts, leaving friends and families disconnected, businesses unable to operate, and journalists prevented from reporting on events.
Recent developments have left many in Ethiopia skeptical about the durability and sincerity of Abiy’s reforms. Atnaf Brhane, a fellow co-founder of Zone9, said that the internet shutdowns had created “a bad record for a ‘reformist’ leader.”

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CNN made several attempts to reach the Ethiopian government but did not get a response.
The most recent internet blackout began on Saturday, June 22 after reports of an attempted coup in the Amhara region. After 100 hours without internet access, the network was gradually restored, although it wasn’t until July 2 that mobile data finally returned.
There was no formal explanation from the government but the state-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, the country’s lone telecoms provider, issued an apology and told CNN at the time the companywould credit customers for services that were affected during the shutdown.
The shutdown followed another blackout earlier in June. The disruptions combined have meant that Ethiopians did not have reliable connections for almost half the month.

A return to old habits

As of the time of publishing, complete access is yet to be restored as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and some VPN apps remain blocked by the government.
The continued blocks represent a significant barrier to freedom of expression and the right to information. In fact, “in Ethiopia, Facebook is basically equal to the internet,” Wabella, who now runs the media outlet, Addis Zaybe, said.
He added the shutdown forced him to close his offices for over a week, preventing him from publishing any new stories or publicizing their work on social media.

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Ethiopia restores internet after one week outage
It was not just digital media that were affected, however. During the shutdown, businesses were forced to close, events were canceled, and families were unable to communicate. Popular taxi service ZayRide was also affected by the shutdown, leaving their drivers with no work for a week.
Combined, the effect of internet shutdowns on the economy is staggering. According to the internet monitoring NGO, Netblocks, each day of an internet blackout costs the Ethiopian government nearly $4.5million.
Additionally, it prevented families from communicating during the attempted coup, which made it a particularly dangerous and sensitive time. As, the executive director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia said: “People want to know the well-being and safety of their family… the internet shutdown is putting people in fear again.”

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People in Ethiopia are calling strangers in Eritrea as phone lines are opened after 20 years
Nevertheless, many digital rights activists believe the government will continue to restrict access to the internet during politically sensitive moments as previous governments have.
“Since 2016, the government of Ethiopia has had a habit of shutting down the internet whenever there is political unrest or demonstration [and] after a few months the new administration took office they returned to their old habit,” Brhane said.

Internet kill switch

Governments around the world are increasingly reaching for the internet kill switch. In the past few months alone, there have been internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. While in Africa, internet shutdowns are also being employed more frequently by governments.
In 2019 alone, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all enforced a shutdown for various reasons.
Internet shutdowns were a regular occurrence under Ethiopia’s former premier Hailemariam Desalegn and, despite Abiy’s promises to protect freedom of expression, there have already been several such disruptions during his short reign.
The first widespread disruption occurred just months after his inauguration following an outbreak of violence in the eastern cities of Jijiga, Dire Dawa and Harar.
During the blackout, citizens were heavily reliant on state media, which effectively allowed the regime to control the narrative surrounding the attempted coup.

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Failed coup sees Ethiopia army chief shot dead by bodyguard
It is a move that is highly reminiscent of Desalegn’s tight control of the media in which, according to Human Rights Watch, there was a “strategy to manage and control information flows, including the media, and ensure that its policies are promoted but not critiqued.”
Additionally, during the shutdowns, there were reports of journalists charged under the same anti-terror legislation used in the Zone9 cases, once more indicating a potential return to a regime that uses controversial anti-terrorism law and internet shutdowns to stifle freedom of expression.
Activists such as Wabella now fear that recent developments will prompt a further deterioration in freedom of expression in the country. “Things are unfortunately making the future look very bleak,” he said.
As internet access slowly returns across the country, people are finally able to tell their stories of how the disruptions impacted them. “The internet is part of our lifestyle not just our jobs,” Wabella said. “It had a huge impact on the entire community.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. In order to protect freedom of expression Dr. Abiy himself should stand up for himself from Jawar and OLF hooligans who are forcing him to run their agenda.

    He know that he had had full support of the majority of Ethiopians from all ethnicity. Instead of honoring his supporters and take advantage of his power he decided to ignore and deceit them and worked with the weak and ignorant people like Jawar Mohomed and Dawd Ibsa and the likes. Now it is impossible to regain the trust which will be the main reason for his failure.

  2. I just read a shameful story a video on another website where two opposing groups(so-called pro vs against the Abiy administration) were disorderly and therefore arrested in the DC area.

    This just makes my heart bleed in utter sorrow. It saddens me because we who are supposed to be well educated and exposed to democracy that shows us how far tolerance go have not taken in such blessed attitude toward each other. After more than 45 years of trash talking to each other and reckless name calling we are still in the same rotten mud!!! In the meantime, those poor Oromo and Amhara farmers are still going about tending to their farms together. They are raising their families together. But We, us, the worst kind of human refuse are getting high from calling each other derogatory names that those noble farmers in the Chercher highland will never allow in their midst. You must be ashamed of yourselves. I go as far as saying I wish you were not even born. You are a disgrace to those dignified people who produced us all. You are a disgraced of the colored!!! You are a disgrace to humanity!!!

    Some of you who claim to be Amharas are as of late trying to justify the killings of regional officials and two other government officials in the capital in front of the daughter of one of the victims. That was carried by none other than cold blooded thugs just because they had this runaway hatred toward the victims. That is nothing but a heinous crime only frequented by demonic terrorists. You should be ashamed of yourselves for condoning this un-Ethiopian(un-Amhara) savage act.

    Those of you who claim to be Oromos who are having a fit to call every living, breathing and protesting Amhara a racist or a ‘neftegna’ you should also be ashamed of yourselves. You should know better that such reckless and bigoted name calling is the one that led to the massacre of those innocent peasants in Bedeno and other areas in the 1990’s. You are doing this just because you have been ravaged by this bug of yanking a territory from harmonious neighbors to call it your personal fiefdom. You are showing yourself as the worst bigots that ever crawled on this good earth. You must be ashamed of yourself. I wish you were not even born. That fantasy of a fiefdom is gonna remain just as such, a pipe dream, the story in the Wiz of Oz. You are being taken for a long ride by smart alecks in your midst, who are devoid of self respect by being busy scavenging at the dumpsites in Asmara until September 2018. In your and my name, I may add.

    Now this is for the dear editors of this website. My previous plea to you and your colleagues still stands. You must not allow bigots to have an easy walk in the park on this waterhole. You owe it to those noble people we all left behind. These bigots are spewing lethal poison from their comfy homes here in the USA and the rest of the Western world. They don’t give a damn if that old country, that gem of the colored goes up in flames. I don’t have to tell you this because they themselves had said it already that unless their objectives are met they don’t give a flying tickling if the whole country goes up in flames. You Amhara this, you Oromo that, you Tigre this and you whoever you are that. That has been the romance of the day, every day for these hate mongering demons. I hold you in the name of our forefathers who shed their Allah created blood so we can live in peace and harmony. We should remember that one day we will all stand in front of The Almighty Our Creator to answer for our actions, every one of them!!!

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