552 hours. For 23 full days Ethiopia was cut off from the world. The latest of the internet blocks in one of the countries called to be the continent’s leaders has come in the midst of the worst social crisis since Abiy Ahmed Ali came to power. The Ethiopian authorities responded to the wave of opposition generated by the murder of the Oromo musician and activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, by shutting down the Internet and ensured that for 23 full days the world had no evidence of what was happening within the country. There were testimonies of the spiral of violence generated by the armed forces and groups of exalted civiliansBut virtually no photos or videos of the incidents escaped. During those 23 full days, neither journalists nor human rights defenders were able to circumvent the darkness generated by the network blocking.
Ethiopia had become in recent years a benchmark for democratization. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali had set himself up as the example of the new African leader and his figure had even been recognized with a controversial Nobel Peace Prize. His résumé includes a peace with Eritrea, the release of thousands of political prisoners, appointments of renewal authorities and a sizable face-washing operation. But on June 29, Hundeessaa was shot dead in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, in a dark incident that has not yet been clarified. The murder unleashed a wave of protests that spread and, with them, in that climate of the new regime, the most recurrent ghosts of the old one were erected once again: together with violence and repression, a tight control of information and censorship. systematic.
“In reality, in the current government there are many people who come from the previous regime and, in part, they are not able to apply new methods to control the chaos, but the context of these events is very different from that of the old regime,” he explains. Befekadu Hailu, an Ethiopian blogger and human rights defender who spent 544 days in prison six years ago for his activism in defense of freedom of expression. In the past, Ethiopian governments had repeatedly resorted to blocking the Internet without suffering consequences.
Censorship has harmed the work of journalists and human rights defenders
Berhan Taye, activist
As of June 29 the events rushed forward: the murder of Hundeessaa, the demonstrations, the confrontations, the increase in violence and, the next day, silence. Not the placid silence of the return to calm, but the tense silence of an Internet blackout, interrupted by the alerts that activists launched from outside the country: it was not known with certainty what was happening in Ethiopia. “Censorship has damaged the work of journalists and human rights defenders. It has made it effectively impossible to obtain credible information about the country, that it is difficult to verify incidents and identify communities at risk, ”he explains. Berhan Taye, an Ethiopian activist, responsible for the program against Internet blocking of Access Now, one of the organizations that has denounced the blackout.
For Taye, the measure to censor the Internet responds to the philosophy of the Government rather than to the practical response to violence. “This government has closed the network on numerous occasions and continues to maintain the same tactics used by the previous regime,” he says. The researcher recalls that it is clear that incitement to hatred and disinformation “are threats in Ethiopia”, but that the measures taken by the Ahmed Ali Executive do not represent a solution. In fact, shortly before the June 30 blockade, Ethiopia had passed new legislation to combat the threat to coexistence in the digital environment, known as the Proclamation for the Prevention and Suppression of Hate Speech and Disinformation. “The shortcomings of the current Proclamation make it difficult to address the fight against hate speech and misinformation,” Taye sentenced.
The millionaire cost of closing the network
In addition to the complaints of violation of fundamental rights that the blocking of the Internet supposes and the door to impunity that a measure of this type opens, some organizations that defend digital rights recall the economic impact of a digital blackout in a market like the Ethiopian. The Nigerian organization Paradigm Initiative (PIN) warned on the same day of the network shutdown that every day without Internet would cost Ethiopian citizens 4.5 million dollarsbased on calculations made during previous outages. Netblocks, a group that monitors Internet freedom around the world did the numbers when the connection was restored: The blockade has meant for Ethiopians losses of $ 100 million in just three weeks.
These calculations take into account the slowdown in economic activity, but it is not possible to quantify the loss of human life, nor the damages generated by a silenced but real violence, nor the erosion of the credibility of the Government, nor the shaking of confidence and coexistence. “Ethiopia cannot resort to shutting down the Internet every time there is a security crisis,” he laments Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian freelance journalist who has struggled to document the violence of July despite the blockade. This reporter continues: “The blackout shows a failure of the institutions. The murders must be stopped by the police and military forces; If the authorities resort to shutting down the Internet to stop them, it means they have lost hope in their security apparatus. But in addition, with the closure, the forces of order shot at protesters in cities of Oromia, killing and injuring hundreds between June 30 and July 8. Due to the lack of connection, it was difficult to cover it.
“The closure increases police brutality, state assassinations and repression. It didn’t help the security effort at all. The death toll is one of the highest in recent years, ”Zelalem sums up. “The main thing that was hidden from the world”, comments this journalist, “was the violent repression against the protesters. There were 7,000 people arrested during that period. The government claims that they participated in the violence, but my sources say that many were innocent and unarmed protesters ”.
“The blackout on the Internet”, comments Befekadu Hailu, “always gives the Government an advantage in the monopoly of information and narrative, that is, the coverage of its response to violence, whether it is the lack of protection of vulnerable groups or the use of disproportionate force to contain it. Nobody knows what happened ”. An extremely tight lock, a darkness, the one Hailu mentions, especially intense, only possible because “Ethiopia has a single provider of telecommunications services, the one in charge of the State, Ethio Telecom”, as Zelalem recalls. “There are no competing companies or networks. The sector is monopolized and controlled by the government. Internet and telephone services in Ethiopia are poor and extremely expensive.
The internet blackout always gives the government an advantage in the information and narrative monopoly
Since the state controls the flow of the Internet, it can close or open it at will, and that is the problem. Even the embassies and government offices had no Internet for a few days, “says the journalist.
Zecharias Zelalem’s experience reveals the real consequences of the digital blockade: “Each of the times that an attempt was made to stop the violence by closing the Internet, the opposite happened. The internet was turned off for 23 days, and we saw one of the worst waves of violence in recent years, with 239 dead. From late 2019 until around March 2020, the internet was shut down in western Ethiopia, where the army was fighting rebel groups and killing civilians. For Zelalem, the answer is not to prevent information from circulating, but quite another: “To avoid incitement to hatred, Ethiopia needs its security institutions, its justice and education systems to step forward. When they work with society and cooperate to prevent violence, hate speech will have no repercussions, even if those who spread such hatred live in foreign countries. Shutting down the Internet means one thing: government institutions have failed. Shutting down the Internet means the government cannot arrest criminals and bring them to trial. This cannot be an option to prevent violence in Ethiopia ”.