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Ethiopia's blogosphere takes a hit

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia, Freedom of Speech

Ethiopia's once burgeoning blogging scene took a hit over the past few weeks after the bulk of its weblogs mysteriously disappeared from computer screens inside the country.

All online journals hosted on Blogger's blogspot platform – about two thirds of the Ethio blogosphere – are still affected – as are a number of anti-government websites. (All are still visible outside Ethiopia.)

Many of the bloggers themselves, including GlobalVoices’ own Ethan Zuckerman [1], have blamed the disappearances on the country's government and its state monopoly telecoms company ETC [2], accusing them of starting Sub-Saharan Africa's first widespread blog blockage.

Government spokespeople have pleaded their innocence, on one occasion insisting that they lacked the technical know-how to engage in cyber-censorship.

Whatever the cause, the disappearances are continuing to have a serious impact on the writers themselves.

Five of the 32 Ethiopian blogs tracked by GlobalVoices have stopped blogging altogether since their websites were first obstructed in mid-May. Blogging on other sites has slowed (with the notable exception of Ethiopia's diaspora writers in the USA). Worst of all, the regular flow of new blogs that was seen through the early months of 2006 has stalled.

Many grassroot writers inside the country told others by e-mail that they could no longer log on to add new entries.

Others – who assumed that the problem was the result of a government clamp-down – had more pressing worries.

Carpe Diem Ethiopia [3] began by wondering why the government had done it in his post Blogging in the valley of the shadow of death [4]:

Here’s what's baffling: If Meles [Ethiopia's prime minister] has done his homework and did indeed seek the advice of the Chinese (which we doubt—aren’t there Ethiopians who can do that?), he would know his blog-blocking venture would be tantamount to placing a band-aid on a shotgun wound. Given the negligible gains blog-blocking brings him, he should conclude his cyber censorship is more harmful to his regime's image than the trouble worth going through…

Our take on why they're doing it? To show you, the editors of news sites and bloggers as well as our readers that they could. It's simple as that. It says I can reach you; it says “you're put on notice: I fucking hate you.”…

He went on to raise further fears:

If they knew our identities and had access to our bodies in Ethiopia, what would they do? Would stalwart bloggers including ethiopundit [5], ET Wonqette [6], Dagmawi [7], Ethiopian Politics [8], One Ethiopia [9], Redeem Ethiopia [10], aqumada [11], Tsegasaurus [12], Ethio Zagol [13] and others who have taught us so much about Ethiopia and ourselves in the past year be safe? Would the editors of quatero, ethiomedia, Nazret, and Ethiopian Review survive the wrath of Ethiopia’s security apparatus?

Aqumada [11] was one of a handful of blogs to publish a list of ways round the stoppage in its post We will not shut up [14].

Outside the blockage controversy, Ethiopia's surviving bloggers kept up the flow of inventive, opinionated posting – even if the blogging volume was lower than usual.

A view from my porch [15] came up with the most haunting entry of the month with a memory of an encounter with a distraught Addis women in a city café in Coffee for One [16]:

When it becomes noon, I buy us lunch. I find out that her name is “Seble” and that her father is a butcher in Addis. I don’t burden her with the details of my family. We leave the café and walk through the city. It is absurdly hot; but barely noticed it. The day had a timeless quality about it. I can still see her dark auburn hair blowing across her face. Sometimes, late at night, I can hear her voice. We talk for hours about everything and nothing. By the time it starts to darken, I am besotted.

Aqumada [11] wrote about his memory of a more bruising encounter with an Ethiopian woman – his own mother who had just caught him stealing a pacifier from a supermarket. In Judge me by a double standard [17] he wrote:

Now, if you are a non-abesha [Ethiopian] person you should know the deeply ingrained abesha belief that everyone needs physical punishment every now and then. Even if you haven't done anything wrong parents and teachers will give you the occasional whipping as if it is a vaccine intended to boost the effectiveness of the previous shot you had a year ago. But I knew what awaited me was the Ethiopian version of the Spanish inquisition. I pleaded to god through a torrent of blasphemy hoping he would change me into a pillar of salt like Lot's wife but it was the mid 80s and god's network was jammed by requests from Wello and Tigraye. To make matters worse, all the belts hanging in my parent's closet boasted a “Made in Italy – Genuine Leather” imprints (where the hell was China with their vinyl imitation knock-offs ready to stuff my dad's closet who had a special appreciation for matching government enforced khakis with brand name Italian belts). All I could count on to save me intact was my mom's fitness which I figured would force her to quit the beating in less than one hour. The moment we got home I was disrobed of everything, my arms were tied to the bed post and my mom went to work putting hide to skin only to fall short of the predicted one hour mark by about 20 minutes.