By Arthur Gwagwa, London, U.K. and Melaku Girma, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Since 2005 when it became a modern constitutional republic, Ethiopia has faced a dilemma, with the choice between increasing digital freedoms that can facilitate national development and participation in the global information economy, and restricting digital freedoms to try to tamp down internal dissent and preserve the regime’s power (Ginsberg, 2017). The country is at yet another critical juncture as the new prime minister is charting a new course that promises greater freedoms. Moving forward, Ethiopia can and should pursue both digital freedom and economic objectives. The internet freedom community should capitalise on the current buoyancy in Addis Ababa, in particular the current strong political will for change, to invest heavily in Ethiopia’s civic tech space.
If the international corporations such as Facebook and other tech giants take the plunge first, this may result in cyber policies that pay lip service to human rights. Worse still, China, already heavily invested in Ethiopia, may consider the country as its next strategic partner under the Belt and Silk Road Initiative, thus leading to an entrenchment of its geopolitical gambit and a further entrenchment of illiberal internet governance norms. Investing in Ethiopia now will ensure citizens are connected to networks where their voices counts, opening a window on topics like technology, inclusion and democracy. Investing during this period of nascent openness is crucial in order to capitalize on this opportunity and do so before services that may restrict citizens’ freedoms are introduced. A vibrant digital society in Ethiopia is good for the digital economy as it is for democracy because it constitutes a consumer base for the digital services.
Home to about 102 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa. Though it is the oldest independent nation on the continent, it has faced numerous violent transitions of power and internal turmoil throughout the 20th century (Ginsberg, 2017). In 2005, under Prime Minister Zenawi, Ethiopia launched its digital dream- an ambitious ICT project under which ICT would pervade all government activities not just in the urban areas but in the rural areas too (The UK Guardian, 4 August, 2005).
However, as the government became unpopular amid sporadic protests which began in 2005, Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which had overthrown Prime Minister Mengistu in 1991, became increasingly repressive. It was faced with the choice between increasing digital freedoms that could facilitate national development and participation in the global information economy, and restricting digital freedoms to try to tamp down internal dissent and preserve the regime’s power.
It chose the latter and cemented its choice through legal, economic, and technological means, for example through the state owned Ethio Telecom monopoly through which it controls all access to phone and internet networks. This choice has had some consequences in Ethiopia’s political and economic trajectory in its formative years as a constitutional republic. The country’s instability, human rights record and digital repression are well documented (OONI and Amnesty International, 2018).
The state began indiscriminately blocking social media, as the government attributed it to the rise in mass protests – though it is unlikely that social media played a crucial role in mobilizing the protests, given that internet penetration in the country remains very low at 2.9%. Ethiopia’s censorship regime was not based on evidence but the country’s obsession with information controls, which not only affected its citizens’ capacity for civic action but also the economy.
This was the case given the clear nexus between vibrant digital societies and thriving digital economies (Gwagwa, 2018). The indiscriminate and blanket nature of the blockages can also be discerned from annex A of this report, for example, the blanket blocking of neutral news sites. Further, despite enlisting the services of Chinese telecom firms Huawei and ZTE and Swedish firm Ericsson, the rural infrastructure remains underdeveloped (Ginsberg, 2017). This setback has compounded other contributing factors of diminished access, like the prohibitive cost of broadband, inferior connectivity speeds and network coverage, and propensity for outages.
The restoration of Internet access, especially outside the capital, was one of Prime Minister Abiy’s first decisions when he came into power in April. Several journalists and bloggers were freed under a political amnesty at the start of the year and again in April. The new government has also promised to amend [restrictive] press laws and the 2009 terrorism law, which was often used to arrest and prosecute journalists critical of the government (CPJ, 2018).
On 22 June 2018, the government announced it would unblock 264 websites, although it has not yet published a comprehensive list of the unblocked sites. Following the announcement, working with those within Ethiopia, we are carrying out a survey – identifying and testing the accessibility of such sites. Our long term goal is to produce a thorough audit of the sites and the state of digital freedoms in the country. In the long run, we will analyse the impact of internet unblocking through an audit of content and civic participation.
In the current survey, we identified, through triangulation of Ethiopian-based sources, ten Ethiopian news outlets previously blocked, 9 of which are not on the OONI Ethiopia test list and latest report. We tested their accessibility both within and outside Ethiopia: from London and Addis Abba on a PC and from my 4G mobile Internet connection, respectively. Deibert and Rohozinski support methodologies such as ours that rely on the activists’ country knowledge to complement technical tests. We present the results of our survey in annex A below. We also offer recommendations on the measures that the internet freedom community can take to aid internal processes in Ethiopia that would enhance greater digital freedoms.
Recommendations to the Internet Freedom Community
Ethiopia is again faced with the choice between increasing digital freedoms that can facilitate national development and participation in the global information economy, and paying lip service to such freedoms. Unlike in 2005, this time the choice is clear-the country can and should pursue both objectives. While the government’s main goal is to connect the unconnected in Ethiopia, civil society and the internet freedom community should initiate an Ethiopian Cyber Dialogue. This, in our view, would make Ethiopia a new centre for digital freedom discourse alongside Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which also have huge populations.
The dialogue should focus on encouraging the civic tech space to have a more critical view on technology, inclusion, economy and democracy since a vibrant digital society is good both for democracy and the digital economy. As regional telecoms providers and international providers are already eyeing the lucrative Ethiopian market, the internet freedom community should take a lesson from other regions that have undergone similar transitions.
In Latin America, for example, Renata Avilla of Smart Citizens warns against the implementation of strategies to connect the poor to an inferior network, or the rush of industrialised countries to connect the marginal – to capture their data before they even gain enough literacy to be able to use the Internet in a constructive way. Avilla continues: “It is brutal. Sometimes I feel the ethics in this space are akin to the ethics of pharmaceutical companies performing drug trials on uninformed people who have no recourse if things go wrong. As the next billion connects, part of my mission is that they connect to a Web where their voices count.” Of course, Ethiopia needs invigorated networks but also a robust but decentralised set of tools to communicate in the digital society. As other countries have shown, there is still a lot of innovation to come, but the policies in place in emerging digital economies are only benefiting, to a great extent, elites and emerging middle classes. This digital divide is one of the greatest 21st century threats to the internet as a whole. Ethiopia could be an experiment- a shift that focuses on the disenfranchised many but to do that we need to place digital inequalities at the core of the discussions.
We propose an Ethiopian Cyber Dialogue as an important step in encouraging internet rights activists in the country to have a more critical view on technology, inclusion, economy and democracy. Given the long history of repression in the country, this is an important formative step in mentoring actors in this space who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with exactly how to be critical without risking retribution
ANNEX A: A compilation of unblocked websites we manually tested in Addis and London
This is an Amharic version of ESAT news, which mostly broadcasts from Washington, D.C. On its website ESAT says it encourages submission of reliable information, news tips, documents, pictures, videos, other forms of data and ideas. A click on the English button navigates you to the ESAT side as shown below.
Figure 1(a): Screenshot of ESAT English News captured from London on 27/06/2018
Figure1 (b): Screenshot of ESAT English News captured from Addis on 27/06/2018.
This Amharic site does not reveal much content and appears to be one of those that were affected by the government blanket blocking
Fig 2 (a): Screenshot of Beteamara captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 2 (b): Screenshot of Beteamara captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
This site does not seem to have nee updated. It carries a small talk discussion on the Ethiopian-Eritrean tensions.
Fig 3 (a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Semay captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 3 (b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Semay captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
This site appears to be pro-government and covers local news in an objective manner, for example, the blast at the rally, the danger posed by the insurgent group TPLF.
Fig 4 (a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Semay captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 4 (b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Semay captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
This is a very critical site, carrying news on police brutality, the imminent return of exiled dissidents, and it also posts United Nations Reports critical of Ethiopia’s human rights record.
Fig 5 (a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Kichuu captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 5 (b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Kichuu captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
This is an objective news site which is pro-Alby, the new prime minister.
Fig 6 (a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Mereja captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 6 (b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Mereja captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
Neutral news site but with hyperlinks on its side bar to the once banned ESAT TV
Fig 7(a): Screenshot of Ethiopian DJ captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 7(b):Fig 7(a): Screenshot of Ethiopian DJ captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
FREEDOM FOR ETHIOPIA
This site covers both general news and links to sites of groups once categorised as terrorist organisations such as the Ginbot 7 as shown on the second screenshot below.
Fig 8(a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Freedom for Ethiopian captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 8(b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Freedom for Ethiopian captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 8(c): Screenshot of Ethiopian Freedom for Ethiopian captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
This site is critical of Ethiopia’s bad human rights situation such as the imprisonment of political dissidents and activists, freedom of speech, press and general freedoms.
Fig 9 (a): Screenshot of Ethiopian Freedom captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 9 (b): Screenshot of Ethiopian Freedom captured from Addis on 27/06/2018
An Amharic news site which appears to be neutral and objective
Fig 10 (a): Screenshot of SIITUBE captured from London on 27/06/2018
Fig 10 (b): Screenshot of SIITUBE captured from Addis on 27/06/2018