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Ethiopia Locks Down Digital Communications in Wake of #OromoProtests

Photo published on EthioTube page titled "Pictures from Oromo Protest - Winter 2015". No attribution or further context appears on the site.

Photo published on EthioTube page titled “Pictures from Oromo Protest – Winter 2015″. No attribution or further context appears on the site.

When students in Ginchi, a small town 75 km west of Addis Ababa, organized a demonstration in November 2015, US-based opposition media activist Jawar Mohammed, began posting minute-to-minute ‘live’ updates of the protest on his massively popular Facebook page, which has over 500k followers.

What started as a small-scale student protest over Ethiopian government's plan to expand Addis Ababa into adjacent farm lands of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest constitutionally autonomous state, evolved into a series of largest and bloodiest demonstrations against Ethiopian government in a decade leaving at least 400 people killed, many more injured, and thousands jailed.

Along with Jawar’s live updates about the protests on Facebook, netizens saw a flood of digital photos, videos, blog posts, and tweets on other social media platforms coming from inside Ethiopia, mostly under the hashtag #OromoProtests.

For over a decade, the Ethiopian government has been violently cracking down on protesting students in Oromia, but these incidents have never garnered the online attention they did this time around. With scant coverage by foreign media from the front lines, and silence and misinformation coming from Ethiopia’s largely pro-government media outlets, the Internet emerged as the main channel used to disseminate information about protests. Jawar’s Facebook page and Twitter feed became the official-yet-unofficial story of the protest, leading diaspora writers to identify Jawar as a key shaper of public opinion on the events.

Though these networked communication dynamics are commonplace in many parts of the world, they are novel in Ethiopia, where Internet penetration hovered just below 5% in 2013, which is the last time that Internet access data was collected there by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency.

The steady stream of #OromoProtests content triggered various attempts by the government to limit digital traffic and block telecom services in Oromia.

In a bid to quell the growing role of social media in magnifying the stories of protests and to regain the upper hand, Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommunication monopoly EthioTelcom blocked social media platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in Oromia for at least two months. Around the same time, EthioTelecom also announced plans to begin charging customers for using popular voice over internet protocol (VoIP) applications such as Viber, Facebook messenger, Skype, and Google hangouts.

According to local media reports, EthioTelecom plans to enforce a new price scheme for VoIP data usage by deploying technologies that will more heavily regulate data plans and what kinds of apps operate on devices of each subscriber active on EthioTelecom network. In an unprecedented move, EthioTelecom also announced a plan to track, identify and ban mobile devices that are not purchased from the Ethiopian market. This move will allow EthioTelecom to keep a track of exactly what data is being sent to and from each subscriber active on the network. It remains unclear exactly how this technology will work, but it unquestionably demonstrates EthioTelecom's intention to take full political advantage of its monopoly.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in terms of Internet penetration in Africa, #OromoProtests garnered wall-to-wall coverage by the US based Ethiopian diaspora satellite television stations, particularly OMN and ESAT. Both stations picked various stories of #OromoProtests from social media and rebroadcast them to millions of Ethiopians living off the grid of mobile phone infrastructure.

To top all this off, on the heels of the protests, the parliament passed a stringent computer crimes law that looks very much like an effort to criminalize protest-related online speech and to more effectively utilize digital communication as a tool of public surveillance.

In a critical piece about the new law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote,

Ethiopia's prosecutors have long demonized legitimate uses of technology, claiming in court that the use of encryption, and knowledge of privacy-protecting tools is a sign of support for terrorists….By criminalizing everyday actions it ensures that anyone who speaks online, or supports online free expression, might one day be targeted by the law…. [This regulation] will intimidate ordinary Ethiopian citizens into staying offline, and further alienate Ethiopia's technological progress from its African neighbors and the rest of the world.

According to reports, the new legislation further limits already-diminished digital rights such as freedom of expression and privacy, criminalizing and levying severe punishments for defamatory speech online. The legislation also obliges service providers to store records of all communications along with their metadata for at least a year.

 

Read Global Voices’ special coverage of Ethiopia's #OromoProtests.

  • Pingback: Ethiopia Locks Down Digital Communications in Wake of #OromoProtests | EthioGazette.com()

  • ተስፋዬ

    Once again foreign media is taken for a ride by Ethiopian rulers. Government spokesperson is quoted as saying “It’s a temporary measure until Wednesday;” Wednesday came and went with no change. The spokesperson also said “Social media have proven to be a distraction for students.” Really? Why the clamp this year and not in past years? Very simple. The country is in great tension. Remember ruling party ordered federal police to use live ammunition on protesting Oromo where 400 were killed and about 8,000 sent to jail – just like that. Protests have turned into a smoldering fire to a point where militarized units are stationed 24/7. Gondar in the northwest is in turmoil this week. Think of the power of social media in situations like this. Remember Zone Nine Bloggers? The Nine used social media to discuss matters concerning their own country. Even had a brief audience with Secretary Kerry when he visited 2 years ago. Still languishing in jail on charges of terrorism. The US will not speak up on this and similar atrocities because Ethiopian rulers have perfected being “key allies.” One last thing. Blogger Daniel Berhane, who works for the ruling party [under cover as “independent” blogger] contended “the government’s actions were “unconstitutional” … “no legal basis or procedural defense to deny the freedom of expression and communication of millions of citizens.” It just means we need to be aware we are up against a government built on deception. GV and similar forums should get to the bottom of things and do an investigative report on Ethiopian rulers and the ever-changing narrative they have been feeding the world community for 25 years! Any thing less would be siding with tyranny.

  • Pingback: Ethiopia Locks Down Digital Communications in Wake of #OromoProtests | Complete World News()

  • Pingback: Global Voices: Ethiopia Locks Down Digital Communications in Wake of #OromoProtests | OromianEconomist()

  • Abo tewuna

    Here we go again! The saddest thing about this article is that the writer hasn’t provided one single solution or action plan to which direction the country should go or put points finger in so many challenges the country is facing. The article is written in much desire to make the country look bad than it is with very hard to see line to know he is among the opposition party or a journalist.

    you have this well crafted and planned one liners which mischievously appreciate unrest by endorsing Jawar Mohammed’s (23 year old) leadership as “key shaper of public opinion” and the deep desire for conflict to ignite by suggesting Oromia as the only “constitutionally autonomous state” = support the separatist move.

    We had lots and lots of articles and its becoming a trend by Ethiopian diaspora wth a desire to cue government in a fragile part of the world remotely without doing the hard work or without any, one, single contribution for the country they left for more comfort is saddening.

    What should this poor country do to make the life of the poor better? We have 60% of the 100 million population not educated cannot read or write…. Does US type of democracy proportional for this type of society? Europeans and Americans took them 300 years to get to the type of Democracy they have now, we had our first constitution 20 years ago. Does economical development or democracy comes first? Japan has 1 party leading for 45 years because they decided Economic development comes first. China has 1.6 billion pop and no Democracy, no google, no Facebook ,no twitter ,but the people understand perfectly that one generation has to sacrifice to change peoples lives forever then democracy comes next. Tell me Japan was wrong!! Tell me China was wrong!! Tell me Malaysia ( no democracy) was wrong! Democracy is something that evolves not a one day given present.

    We would really like to know What you would have done if you were the PM of Ethiopia. what is the fastest way you propose that will change the lives of the people? what type of democracy were you planning to provide the people? Lets say you zone 9 Jawar and ESAT people take down the ruling party, do you think 100 million people will be happy with your type of leadership? Do you think everyone will follow you from day one as a “liberator” or the country will burn like Iraq because every faction and state want become a country? Seeing what happened to all Arab spring countries what is your chance of avoiding all that bloodshed and leading us to the promise land?

    If you have even 0.0001 percent of love for your country, there were times before and there will be times in the future but this is not the time for a removal of a government for Ethiopia.The Egyptians, the Eritreans and Somalis will tear us down to the ashes. I am true believer of no bully should be on power but history taught us time and time again that “some dictators are better left alone” because if taken down the demons will take over.

    You are in US,you might not care or you might get paid to push words like genocide, ethnic cleansing, oppression, dictatorship to fuel up things but remember you will be responsible for the consequence you and your OMN & ESAT friends bring to the country.

    Peace.

    • ተስፋዬ

      Hello Abo. You are silly trying out your thingy from your embassy hideout. I am impressed you seem to know exactly where everyone is hailing from. So your report earlier that you are back in Kenya is a lie. What is new?

  • Pingback: Nigeria: Curbing the Tide of Ethnic Hate — Online and Off · Global Voices()

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