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Ethiopia: Disconnecting Citizens From the Future

Ethiopians have their attention focused on the controversial new bill which criminalizes the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and Google Talk. Netizens are especially furious over the country’s state owned Ethio-Telecom, which proposed the new bill. Meles Zenawi's government claims that the new bill is meant to prevent external security threats.

A number of Facebook groups have already been created to condemn the state-controlled telecommunication service provider. One of the groups is Ethio-Telecom Sucks which has 1,297 members so far. Members of this group usually share their frustration with Ethio-Telecom services but the recent controversial telecom bill and the deployment of Deep Packet Inspection – a form of computer network packet filtering that examines internet traffic – caused members to be even more vocal.

Logo of Ethio Telecom Sucks Facebook group. Photo source: Group's Facebook page.

One member of this group posts [amh]:

እኛ ሃገር ከዛሬ ትናንት ይሻላል፤ ከነገ ደግሞ ዛሬ:: ስለዚህ እንደ አያት ቅድመ አያቶቻችን “ተመስገን” እያልን መቀጠል ነው የሚበጀን:: የእነ ‘ስካይፕ’ እና የነ ‘ጉግል ቶክ’ መከልከል ሲገርመን “የ ‘ኢሜል አካውንት'ም አያስፈልጋቸውም አርፈው የሃገር ውስጥ ምርት በሆነው ኤሮግራም ይጠቀሙ” የሚል ህግ ካልወጣ ከምላሴ ፀጉር….

In our country yesterday was better than today and sure today is better than tomorrow. Therefore, just like our great grand fathers it is better for us to be grateful for everything and move on. We should not be shocked with the prohibition of Skype and Google Talk because I am convinced that there will be laws that will proscribe us to use aerogram instead of email in the future.

While expressing their contempt for the bill, some Ethiopians compare it to the controversial anti-terrorism law. Another comment reads:

Instead of passing this crazy legislation wasn’t it sensible to just block the VOIP protocol if it is really for national security ?(That is if using Skype really vests a trait) Unless the intention of this open ended law is to use it to convict people with no real grounds at all and just arrest whoever they want. This just sounds like a succession of the Terrorism law

Daniel Berhane disagrees. He blames the government public relations machine for failing to explain the essence of the bill while blaming the Western media for rushing to condemn the bill without even confirming whether the bill was passed to be a law or not.

Daniel writes a post titled “Skype me Indeed”:

Though the media rush to make unverified claims, which is obviously based on remarks from some local politicians/activists, is disturbing, it is the Ethiopian government’s inability and unwillingness to provide info mainly to be blamed. Strangely, officials in Addis were as informed on the matter as the guy on the street regarding the matter in the past week.

For Mesfin Negash it does not matter whether the bill was passed into law or not. He points out that it is a custom of the Ethiopian government to encourage citizens to do something then criminalize the same thing later. He shows how the website of Ministry of Information Technology promotes the use of VoIP. The section that promotes the use of VoIP was taken dawn right away the bill went public. Mesfin Negash shares the screen shot of this section on Facebook:

Promote then criminalize! Two days ago I visited Ministry of Communication and Information Technology's website In the service section of the site, one of the services promoted was VoIP. It was laughable to read one government promoting and criminalizing VoIP. Right now I could access all the content of the section except that of VoIP.
Fortunately I had captured the page that promoted VoIP. The first line of this subsection of VoIP reads: “If you've never heard of VoIP, get ready to change the way you think about long-distance phone calls.” Interesting. Promote then criminalize looks the underlying working principle of MZ. Promote freedom of speech then make it a crime, promote freedom of assembly then criminalize it…..promote VoIP then criminalize. Next time you hear something promoted expect the criminalization.

Argaw Ashine who wrote the story for Africa Review for the first time before it got picked up by mainstream media writes:

I read some distorted headlines mentioning my name as a source about the new telecom law which criminalizes use of VoIP which includes , Skype, Viber, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger and Pal-talk etc. To make clear, The imprisonment for using social media software is 2-8 years and internet phone calling service provision(intent cafe) is punishable up to 15 years.

I respect and appreciate all the efforts by other media organizations but I am not responsible for any other publication/broadcast except the one published by my own agency Africa Review or the whole NMG outlets.

Endalk briefly analyzes the bill on his blog:

This proclamation [bill] provides broad and ambiguous definitions particularly for telecommunication services and equipment which might be used to include blogging and possessing social media pages such as facebook and twitter.

The draft Proclamation defines telecommunication services as anything designated as telecommunication service by Ministry of Information Technology (MIT) with the exception of broadcasting and intercom connections and listed more than ten services that are considered as telecom services. Furthermore the proclamation enlarges the definition of telecommunication equipment in considerable ways to include any apparatus intended to use for telecommunication services and it includes its accessory and software.

  • @Endalek:disqus 
    I thought of re-posting your articles on my blog (as Global Voice permits that), however, your media roundups are often distorted.
    For example, in this article, you misrepresented my article here.

    1/Did I say western media? In fact, I quoted from Al-Jazeera.

    2/Is the issue that the bill is still a draft my main argument? And, is it likely you failed to note that? (it was a short article plus a very sensitive issue that consumed more than a week of active discussion)

    Distorting issues shows that you lack confidence on the things you believe in. Otherwise, let the reader get all the relevant arguments.Hope to see you soon in person. 

  • Pingback: Internet as a Human Right? Part Two: Economy | GES blog()

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