Media sector reform can facilitate Ethiopia’s development agenda. In his inaugural acceptance Speech on April 2, 2018, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, acknowledged how free flow of information and activities, including through the use of technology can “reverberate” economic growth and boom. The Sub Saharan Africa Cyber Threat Modelling project assessed the current state of the media and probed the new government’s commitment to media reform, in part through interviews carried out with Ethiopian media workers in the Washington DC area. Our work emphasizes the centrality of respect for free speech, including online, to the realisation of the government’s development goals.
Despite his role as the chief architect of INSA (Information Security Agency) responsible for online information controls, by acknowledging the role of a free media in bringing about prosperity and democracy in Ethiopia, the new Prime Minister is striking the right tone with media critics. Although some remain sceptical, given a 27-year history of unprecedented media repression in Ethiopia, it is heart-warming to hear Dr. Ali commend those working in the media ecosystem to support nation building, peace and development.
As Ethiopia titters on the cusp of change, the new administration should now follow optimistic rhetoric with concrete steps to close the gap between policy aspiration and the reality of free speech in modern Ethiopia. It should, as one of the first steps, respect freedom of expression, including online. In particular, minority ethnics should be protected in expressing their rights through peaceful protests. Freedom of expression is essential to tolerant, self-governing societies, to good governance in general, and to the ability of governments to implement good policies. The recent return of exiled Oromia rebels to pursue peaceful struggle the release of the death row rebel leader Andargachew Tsige and the imminent lifting of the state of emergency seems to signal the new administration’s commitment to change across all major metrics.
Our interviewees voiced similar sentiments. Several felt that the release of political prisoners such as the dropping of charges against the head of Oromia Media Network, Jawar Mohammed, and ESAT( Ethiopia Satellite Television), was a sign that Ethiopia is changing. A number of Ethiopians both at home and abroad hope that the government will stop targeted attacks on dissidents and protesters. Said Odemo, a prominent Ethiopian Journalist, in our interview,” This is important because for the past 27 years, the government was paranoid. It wanted to control the flow of all information.”
Currently it is against the law for journalists, and private citizens to share information perceived as critical of the state of emergency. In addition, the 2009 anti-terror proclamation has often been used to silence the press in the name of guarding the country’s security. The CPJ has documented several cases when the authorities have relied on the 2005 Criminal Code to prosecute journalists for alleged incitement and criminal defamation in retaliation for their reporting. These powers have been exercised, often with chilling effects, to curb online freedoms too, including the right to privacy. For instance, in 2017, Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, uncovered the use of PC Surveillance System (PSS) spyware by what appears to be agencies of the Ethiopian government to target dozens of individuals. Evidence indicating the Ethiopian government’s misuse of spyware (including Hacking Team’s RCS and Gamma Group’s FinSpy) against journalists, activists, and others has been laid out in prior research over multiple years, as well as in a lawsuit filed in US federal court. One interview confirmed what we had already known, that “Ethiopia runs one of the most robust cyber capabilities on dissidents in Africa-and don’t think there is any other country that does it to this scale.” Furthermore, an interviewee noted that Ethiopia’s “human capability is immense and scary for a country that is one of the poorest in the world.”
The interviewees now want to see reformists in the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, push their agenda in the party towards a political opening and a repeal of repressive legislation. They feel that the current talk by the Prime Minister to repeal or amend the law to ensure that no one may be targeted for criticizing the government should be accompanied by action. “The Prime Minister can say what he wants but if the legislation is in place, it doesn’t help because they can release you and arrest you tomorrow. We need systemic change,” said Odemo.
One could also argue that a repeal of legislation isn’t the sole responsibility of the Prime Minister but also of the Federal Assembly. On his part, the Prime Minister has already begun instituting key systemic reforms. For example, despite a career in military intelligence, since his appointment, he has parted with tradition by replacing the INSA Director with a civilian. There is also strong speculation that although he may not remove or de-escalate the surveillance architecture, INSA’s efforts may be re-directed towards legitimate national security objectives. The first interviewee opined this view: “Given that Ethiopia has legitimate fears such as the Al Shabbab in Somalia and attacks in Kenya, I don’t think INSA will reduce its capability but they may re-direct it to fight terrorism instead of politicians.”
Does Ethiopia have alternatives? The country has reached a fork in the road and the path it takes going forwards will largely determine whether it realises the Prime Minister’s vision of a prosperous democracy. The country has been on such critical junctures at several times where it had to make difficult choices. Previously instead of opening up the internet, it pursued a number of short sighted methods and logics to pursue the twin objectives of promoting growth and stifling digital dissent. As Daniel Grinberg argues, the chilling effects of surveillance in Ethiopia damaged the prospects for sustainable development and further marginalized the voices of political challengers and critics.
Faced with yet another critical juncture, the new government has to choose the hard path of reforms. If it doesn’t carry out the reforms that would allow the exercise of fundamental freedoms including freedom of expression, many feel that Ethiopia faces a bleak alternative. According to Odemo, “Now people have a voice, e.g. social media, whereas they once used pseudonym now they don’t care, Ethiopian activists can now email and call you using their real identity. An average activist in Ethiopia now can tell you they have nothing to fear-‘I am fighting for my rights.’ They give you story tips, leads and information without looking over their shoulders.” An increase in traffic from Ethiopia to Odemo’s blog is indicative of the opening up “My website was blocked in Ethiopia for years but now Ethiopia sends the largest traffic to the site after the US. It shows that this the government means what it says in terms of opening up.” It also appears the Prime Minister is pre-empting this as he is now saying what the activists have been asking the government to do for long time. However, the activists want to see him to put those words into action: “We have to push the government to deliver and if they don’t, we need to organise the people to demand changes.” In fact, many feel that the new prime minister, a reformist, was only installed to appease the protesters but there is still need to “push in a reconciliatory and constructive manner, for the rule of law and opening up of political space,” said one interviewee.
Moving forward, Ethiopia should either amend or repeal all legislation that criminalises the exercise of freedom of expression, including online speech. It should re-direct its cyber capabilities towards the development of its digital economy and fending the country from real threats: In particular, there should be a robust accountablity and transparency oversight mechanism over its intelligence gathering programme. As the Prime Minister stated, “We will work closely to make the security and intelligence institutions free from political partiality, so that they may become our national pride, safeguarding the constitutional order and national sovereignty.”
Further, the government should go beyond the rhetoric by implementing measures that would ensure a free flow of information, including the right to impart and receive information. At least on paper, the Prime minister recognises the importance of removing hurdles that hinder the free and regular flow of daily and peaceful activities.
Eminent thinkers, backed by economic data, demonstrate that information and expression are indeed central to sustainable development. More recently, the Sustainable Development Goal adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 makes information and expression central to sustainable development. Information and expression, autonomy, dignity, and truth, are as relevant now to human society as ever. As Amartya Sen has so aptly argued, no famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy. It seems that the full, active and meaningful participation of those affected by crises in the development of appropriate government responses enables the earlier detection of warning signs and the formulation of more effective policy. Likewise, access to information, including through a free press, enables people to better prepare and protect themselves against such crises. The internet and associated technologies, like the use of remote sensing systems for data collections, can be used in the event of natural disasters and similar emergencies. This can help manage such disasters and mitigate their impact on the affected populations. This couldn’t have been truer than for Ethiopia, given its history of famine and the impact this can have on the hard to reach mountainous areas in the Tigray and Amhara regions.
Navi Pillay, the former High Commissioner on Human Rights, once remarked, “The freedoms of assembly and association, the right to participate in decisions that affect one’s life and the right to move freely to seek opportunities are all essential for a life in dignity. Likewise, human experience demonstrates that the long term investment of capital, access to credit and the development of property, which are all necessary for economic growth and development, and for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights are difficult when there is an atmosphere of repression, fear and rampant human rights abuse. Respecting all human rights is therefore crucial.”
If the Ethiopian government wants to deliver economic results, it must start with a commitment to human rights. A powerful first step would be to replace repressive legislation with policies that protect all Ethiopians’ rights to free expression, including online.