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Ethiopian Protesters Endure Brutality and Censorship Amid Land Struggle

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Students in Ethiopia's largest administrative region, Oromia, have been braving state-sponsored violence and censorship since November 2015 to protest a government development plan.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 140 peaceful protesters have died since the demonstrations began. Those killed include university and secondary school students, farmers and school teachers.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Ethiopian authorities and pro-government commentators say the number of dead is around five people.

Why are people protesting?

The protesters are speaking out against the so-called “Master Plan” to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, into Oromia, fearing that the proposed development will result in direct persecution of the Oromo ethnic group, including mass evictions of Oromo farmers from their land.

Read more: Why Are Students in Ethiopia Protesting Against a Capital City Expansion Plan?

Authorities claim that the plan is only meant to facilitate the development of infrastructure such as transportation, utilities, and recreation centers.

The oppression of the Oromo people

The Oromo people represent the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and have experienced systematic marginalization and persecution over the last quarter century.

This oppression has happened chiefly at the hands of the country's ruling elite, who come mainly from the northern Tigray region. Towards the end of Ethiopia’s 1991 civil war, the Tigraian Liberation Front built a coalition with three other ethnic-based parties from Oromos, Amharas and Southern ethnic groups to support its influence and grow into what became Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF. This allowed the TPLF to control key political, economic and military structures of the country.

Today, over 90 percent of top generals are Tigraians. Key ministerial portfolio positions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have never been given to members of another ethnic group. Some estimates put the number of Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia at 20,000 as of March 2014.

The students also demand, among other things, that Oromo, the language of the Oromo people, be made a federal language. Despite being the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia and the fourth largest African language, it is not the working language of the federal government.

This is the second wave of protests against the plan in less than two years. The development project was stalled following protests in May 2014, but also saw at least nine demonstrators killed and hundreds of ethnic Oromo students imprisoned. Officials decided to resume implementation of the project in November 2015, sparking renewed demonstrations.

The government's crackdown on free expression

Social media and satellite TV channels have proven to be critical communication avenues for protesters, despite Ethiopian authorities’ often cutthroat efforts to silence their critics.

Participants have captured photos, audio and video of security forces’ brutal efforts to stop the peaceful protests, including using live ammunition to disperse crowds at universities in Oromia. The material has then frequently been shared on the Facebook pages of prominent activists or uploaded on Ethiopian online platforms such as EthioTube, a video platform run by Ethiopians living abroad.

In response, the government has launched a propaganda campaign against the use of the social media, with state-owned media organizations dedicating multiple programs to the argument that online platforms are being used by so-called “forces of harm” to instigate violence and tarnish Ethiopia's image.

Read more: Ethiopia Protest Videos Show State Brutality, Despite Tech Barriers

Given that less than four percent of Ethiopians have access to the Internet, documentation of protests does not exist solely online. Photos and video shared online by demonstrators are regularly picked up by diaspora satellite television news programs (such as ESAT and Oromia Media Network) that broadcast to tens of millions of Ethiopians in Amharic and Afan Oromo, two of Ethiopia’s major languages.

Read more: Ethiopia Censors Satellite TV Channels as Student Protests Draw Global Media Attention

Executives from the two satellite channels have reported that Ethiopian authorities attempted to meddle with their broadcasting services. Citizens have written posts on Facebook indicating that security forces were attempting to remove satellite dish receivers from rooftops in the Oromia region.

Oromo protesters gather in Addis Ababa. Flickr image uploaded by user Gadaa.com.

Oromo protesters gather in Addis Ababa in May 2014. Flickr image uploaded by user Gadaa.com. CC BY-ND 2.0

Amid the crackdown, authorities also arrested two opposition politicians, two journalists, and summoned five bloggers from Zone9 collective, who were acquitted of baseless terrorism charges just two months ago.

The government censorship machine has extended to music, as well, with at least 17 Oromo singers being banned from airwaves since December 2015 for lyrics that the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority deemed to show “nationalistic tendencies.”

Read more: Inside Ethiopia's Self-Defeating Crackdown on Oromo Musicians

Ethnic Oromo singer Hawi Tezera was reportedly beaten, arrested, released and then rearrested in the space of just seven days by government security forces in connection with her song about the protests.

An estimated 140 people killed

Security forces have been ruthless in their attempts to disrupt the protests. Photo and video evidence suggests that most of these killings were done by bullets fired at close range. Among those confirmed to have been killed by authorities, 17 were minors.

At least 10 people died from torture inflicted while they were in prison, according to Oromo rights activists.

Read more: Mapping the Deaths of Protesters in Ethiopia

Global Voices author Endalk created an interactive map with help from Oromo activist Abiy Atomssa of 111 people who have died during the protests since December 1, 2015. Among those killed, 17 were minors. We ask that any person who has evidence of the death or disappearance of protesters please contact us at editor@globalvoicesonline.org.

Resources for eyewitness reporters

Many of the photos and videos that have circulated online have done so with little to no context included, making it difficult for independent observers to verify the content. There are simple steps that citizen reporters can take in order to remedy this, such as including a recognizable landmark in an image or video and showing a current newspaper with the date clearly displayed. The following guides offer more detail:

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