Ethiopia Restores the Internet but Digital Censorship Worries Remain

Sintia Radu

On June 11, internet users in Ethiopia began complaining they could not access websites or messaging services such as WhatsApp or Telegram, while local media reported that the cutoff from the internet was apparently due to the government's efforts to prevent students from cheating during secondary school final exams.

A week later, internet service reportedly returned, but such moves by the Ethiopian government are not new, according to a report on internet freedom in the East African country and in dozens of other countries. The government has several strategies it employs when it wants to silence people online, according to the report, titled "Freedom on the Net 2018" and published by Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington that advocates for democracy and releases an annual analysis on internet freedom around the world.

Ethiopia is one of the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to internet use, according to the study, and the most recent internet outage was not an isolated incident. The government controls the country's telecommunications infrastructure, allowing it to shut off or restrict information flows and access to internet and mobile phone services, the report says.

Of the 65 countries examined in the Freedom House study, only China and Iran were found to impose tighter controls on the internet than Ethiopia.

Government control is facilitated by how internet connectivity works in Ethiopia. The country is landlocked and connects to the internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to the international gateway, and another cable that connects through Djibouti to an international undersea cable.

"All connections to the international internet are completely centralized via Ethio Telecom, enabling the government to cut off the internet at will," according to the authors of the report, referring to the country's state-owned provider of internet and telephone services.

The government under former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn often engaged in practices meant to silence critics, making the country score among the lowest in the report in online access to information. Since Desalegn resigned in February of 2018, the country has made "incremental improvements" in allowing the free flow of information, the report says.

Freedom House noted that "positive developments were observed in growing access to the internet and censored content, decreasing online self-censorship, and the release of imprisoned bloggers."

However, those improvements came to a halt this month when the Ethiopian government shut down access to online platforms, hindering information from both local residents and tourists and raising questions about the country's commitment to a free flow of information. The shutdown could also hurt the country's efforts to attract foreign investment and expand its economy.

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Likewise, Human Rights Watch notes both the recent progress and setbacks in the country. Since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April of 2018, the government has produced a series of human rights reforms that includes the release of political prisoners. But the New York-based organization also says tensions are being stoked in one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations by a recent breakdown of law, resulting in a large increase in internally displaced persons.

"It is not an easy country to govern in any circumstance," Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow in Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post this week.

In their report on Ethiopia, Freedom House analysts listed specific ways in which the Ethiopian government has abused power and limited access to online information:

-- The government often blocks social media and communications platforms. Facebook has been a frequent target, with the social media platform being blocked during times of protest.

-- The government also restricts political, social or religious content online. Network shutdowns were frequent during large-scale demonstrations, such as in November 2015 when the government wanted to appropriate land from the Oromia region.

-- Information and communications technology networks have deliberately been disrupted; pro-government commentators have manipulated online discussions and laws that have increased censorship or punishment have passed.

-- Online users have been imprisoned, kept in prolonged detention for spreading political or social content critical of the regime, and in some situations, have been physically attacked or killed.

-- The government has engaged in technical attacks against its critics or human rights organizations, using sophisticated surveillance software to target dissidents.

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The country's restrictive internet practices are supplemented by a close relationship with China, the worst global performer in online freedom, the Freedom House study notes.

According to the same report, Ethiopia purchases telecom infrastructure from China, and its officials have been trained in Beijing on new media and information management.

During the weeklong internet shutdown, regional media reported that Ethiopia was chosen to host the 2012 World Telecommunication Development Conference, an international effort to boost telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world.

Sintia Radu covers international affairs and technology for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter @sintiaradu and send her suggestions and ideas at sradu@usnews.com.