Freedom House Report: Ethiopia amoungst the countries who Increased Censorship of Internet
* Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bahrain slide backwards
* Estonia tops United States for No. 1 spot
Government restrictions on the Internet have risen over the past year around the world as regimes use violence against bloggers and turn to censorship and arrest to squelch calls for reform, a new report from a U.S. advocacy group has found.
Pakistan, Bahrain and Ethiopia saw the biggest rollbacks in Internet freedom since January 2011 and were among the 20 countries out of 47 assessed by Freedom House that declined in their rankings.
The report covered the period from January 2011 to May 2012 and is its third on Internet freedom, based on information from researchers mostly based in the 47 countries.
Read below the report on Ethiopia
Freedom House report on Ethiopia
Obstacles to Access:
The authorities have placed some restrictions on advanced internet applications. In particular, the use or provision of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services or internet-based fax services—including at cybercafes—is prohibited, with potential punishments including fines and up to five years in prison. The government instituted the ban on VoIP in 2002 after it gained popularity as a less expensive means of communicating and began to drain revenue from the traditional telephone business belonging to the state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC), or Ethio Telecom. Despite the restriction on paper, many cybercafes offer the service with few repercussions.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook, the video-sharing site YouTube, and the Twitter microblogging service are available, though very slow internet speeds make it impossible to access video content. International blog-hosting websites such as Blogger have been frequently blocked since the disputed parliamentary elections of 2005, during which the opposition used online communication to organize and disseminate information that was critical of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In addition, for two years following the 2005 elections, the ETC blocked text-messaging via mobile phones after the ruling party accused the opposition of using the technology to organize antigovernment protests. Text-messaging services did not resume until September 2007.
Around May 26, 2011, on the eve of a planned opposition demonstration inspired by anti-government protests in the Middle East and celebrations for the anniversary of the ruling party coming to power, the internet was cut off for at least half a day. It remained unclear whether the cause of the shutdown was a deliberate government attempt to restrict communication at a sensitive time, a technical problem, or sabotage of a fiber-optic cable. Separately, when high-profile international events, such as a meeting of the African Union, have taken place in Addis Ababa and other major cities, the government has redirected much of the country’s bandwidth to the venues hosting visitors, leaving ordinary users with even slower connections than usual.
Ethiopia is connected to the international internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and another cable that connects through Djibouti to an international undersea cable. In an effort to expand connectivity, the government has reportedly installed several thousand kilometers of fiber-optic cable throughout the country in recent years. There are also plans in place to connect Ethiopia to a global undersea cable network through the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) project. The EASSy project itself was completed and launched in July 2010, but its effects on Ethiopia have yet to be seen. The government has sought to increase access via satellite links for government offices and schools in rural areas. WoredaNet, for instance, connects over 500 woredas, or local districts, to regional and central government offices, providing services such as video conferencing and internet access. Similarly, SchoolNet connects over 500 high schools across the country to a gateway that provides video- and audio-streamed educational programming. The impact of such projects has been limited, however, as internet speeds across these networks remain almost prohibitively slow and outages are common.
The ETC, or Ethio Telecom, retains a monopoly on all telecommunications services, including internet access and both mobile and fixed-line telephony. Connection to the international internet is centralized via Ethio Telecom, from which cybercafes must purchase their bandwidth. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency (ETA) is the primary regulatory body overseeing the telecommunications sector. Although it was established as an autonomous federal agency, in practice the ETA is tightly controlled by the government.
The space for independent initiatives, entrepreneurial or otherwise, is extremely limited. In October 2011, the government announced that earlier in the year, it had begun granting permission to private companies that run internet-dependent operations to acquire and use VSAT links, connections previously restricted only to governmental and international organizations per special authorization. Under the new directive, which has yet to be made public as of May 2012, companies are reportedly permitted to use the technology for their own operations but are barred from providing services to third parties, thereby maintaining Ethio Telecom’s monopoly on public internet access.
Liberalization of the telecommunications sector is expected to greatly increase internet and mobile phone penetration, but the prospects for such loosening remain uncertain. Despite repeated international pressure to do so, the Ethiopian government has been reluctant to ease its grip on the sector. While some observers consider the December 2010 entry of France Telecom as manager of Ethio Telecom to be a potential move toward liberalization, others are skeptical of the government’s commitment to allowing greater public access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). The foreign partnership may simply be an effort to improve service delivery while maintaining the state monopoly. Even so, under the new management, users continue to complain that speeds delivered are lower than advertised, service is regularly interrupted, and the quality of customer assistance has declined, possibly due to loss of morale following layoffs.
Limits on Content:
Ethiopian websites and blogs that are typically blocked but that suddenly became available in early 2009 included CyberEthiopia, Ethiopian Review, Ethiopian Media Forum, Quatero, and Ethiomedia. Several observers suggested that the loosening came in response to the 2008 U.S. State Department human rights report on Ethiopia released in February 2009, which accused the government of restricting internet access by blocking politically oriented websites. CyberEthiopia, a prodemocracy website, commented in March 2009 that the erratic nature of internet filtering may be a deliberate tactic by the authorities to create confusion and buttress government claims that there is no systematic or pervasive filtering in the country.
By mid-2010, all newly available websites and several others—including the online version of Addis Neger, a leading independent newspaper that was forced to close in December 2009—were temporarily inaccessible again, apparently as part of the government’s broader election-related restrictions on the free flow of information. These websites were blocked for much of 2011, but were briefly unblocked in May 2011, coinciding with a UNESCO event for International Press Freedom Day and the release of a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists criticizing internet censorship in Ethiopia; the timing again reflected the government’s possible efforts to loosen online censorship when under international scrutiny, only to impose it again when the spotlight is removed. By late May, many of the above websites, and some new ones, were blocked again after activists created a Facebook page titled “Beka!” (Enough!) calling for anti-government protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings to take place on May 28, 2011. As of early 2012, the above-mentioned websites, as well as those of Ethsat (an independent exile television station) and Dilethiopia (an opposition website) were inaccessible. Further, an independent test conducted by Freedom House in early 2012 found that 65 websites related to news and views, 14 websites belonging to different Ethiopian political parties, 37 blogs, 7 audio-video websites, and 37 Facebook pages were not accessible in Ethiopia.
In addition to website blocking, some restrictions are also placed on mobile phone text-messaging. In particular, mobile phone users, businesses, and civil society groups are unable to send a message to more than ten recipients without prior approval of its content from Ethio Telecom.
Procedures for determining which websites should be blocked and when are extremely opaque. There is no published list of blocked websites or publicly available criteria for how such decisions are made, and users are met with an error message when trying to access a blocked website. This lack of transparency is exacerbated by the government’s continued denial of its censorship efforts. The decision-making process does not appear to be centrally controlled. Thus, various governmental entities, along with the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) and Ethio Telecom, seem to be implementing their own lists, contributing to the phenomenon of inconsistent blocking.
The increased repression in 2011 against journalists working in traditional media as well as against a number of bloggers has generated a chilling effect in the online sphere. Few Ethiopian journalists work for both domestic print media and as correspondents for overseas online outlets, as this could draw negative repercussions. Many bloggers publish anonymously to avoid reprisals.
In addition to censorship, the authorities use regime apologists, paid commentators, and pro-government websites to proactively manipulate the online news and information landscape. Acrimonious exchanges between a small number of apologist websites and a wide array of diaspora critics and opposition forces have become common in online political debates. Lack of adequate funding represents another challenge for independent online media, as fear of government pressure dissuades Ethiopian businesses from advertising with politically critical websites.
Regime critics and opposition forces in the diaspora increasingly use the internet as a platform for political debate and an indirect avenue for providing information to local newspapers. However, given the low internet penetration rate, the domestic Ethiopian blogosphere is still in its infancy. Blogging initially blossomed during the period surrounding the 2005 parliamentary elections and the subsequent clampdown on independent newspapers. This growth has slowed somewhat since 2007, when the government instituted a blanket block on the domain names of two popular blog-hosting websites, Blogger and Nazret.com. Some political commentators use proxy servers and anonymizing tools to hide their identities when publishing online and to circumvent filtering. Among general internet users, however, circumvention tools are rarely employed, and most people simply forego accessing websites that are blocked.
Over the past two years, the use of social-networking sites, most notably Facebook, as platforms for political deliberation, social justice campaigns, and information sharing has gained momentum. For example, in March 2012 some activists used social media to launch campaigns on behalf of Ethiopian female domestic workers working in the Middle East who were being were being abused.
Nevertheless, many civil society groups based in the country are wary of mobilizing against the government. In February 2011, opposition activists launched the Facebook group “Beka!” (Enough!) calling for a “day of rage” and anti-government protests to be held on May 28. The intention was to have a counter demonstration the same day as a government-sponsored rally celebrating the anniversary of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s rule. No protest materialized, however. This appeared to be because the calls for protest were mostly coming from the Ethiopian diaspora rather than from within the country, as those inside Ethiopia still harbored fear from the bloody crackdown on opposition demonstrations after the 2005 elections and from the most recent round of opposition activist arrests in April 2011 (see “Violations of User Rights”).
Violations of User Rights:
Government surveillance of online and mobile phone communications is a concern in Ethiopia, though there is a lack of concrete evidence as to the scale of such practices. In a series of trials of journalists and bloggers throughout 2011 and early 2012, government prosecutors have presented intercepted emails and phone calls between the journalists as evidence. Upon purchasing a mobile phone, individuals are asked to register their SIM card with their full name, address, and government-issued identification number. Internet subscription account holders also are required to register their personal details, including their home addresses, with the government.
For a period following the 2005 elections, cybercafe owners were required to keep a register of their clients, but this requirement has not been implemented since mid-2010. Nevertheless, there are strong suspicions that cybercafes are required to install software to monitor user activity, which arose after a few incidents were reported of users getting arrested while leaving internet cafes in 2011. The arrests were followed by government warnings that “visiting anti-peace websites using proxy serves is a crime.” The use of such monitoring software remains unconfirmed.
The key government body involved in surveillance is the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), which is suspected of engaging in internet filtering and email monitoring. There have also been reports of the government using technology obtained from the Chinese authorities to monitor phone lines and various types of online communication. According to internal sources working in the industry, INSA is currently testing tools that will enable its officials to mask their identities to acquire user information such as usernames and passwords, which could lead to full-fledged phishing attacks against government opponents in the future. To date, cyberattacks and other forms of technical violence have not been a serious problem in Ethiopia, partly due to the limited number of users.
While it has been common for traditional media journalists in Ethiopia to face considerable harassment and intimidation, leading several to flee the country, prior to 2011 such threats did not affect online activists and bloggers. With the 2011 crackdown against online journalists such as Eskinder Nega, however, dissident bloggers and netizens are beginning to experience increasing levels of intimidation for their work.
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 The first use of internet-like electronic communication was in 1993, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) launched the Pan African Documentation and Information Service Network (PADISNET) project, establishing electronic communication nodes in several countries, including Ethiopia. PADISNET provided the first store-and-forward email and electronic-bulletin board services in Ethiopia. It was used by a few hundred people, primarily academics, and staff of international agencies or nongovernmental organizations.
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 Based on an interview with individuals working in the telecom sector who requested to remain anonymous, as well as a test conducted by a Freedom House consultant who found it was not possible for an ordinary user to send out a bulk text message.
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 Nega is also the 2011 recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Sarah Hoffman, “That Bravest and Most Admirable of Writers: PEN Salutes Eskinder Nega,” PEN American Center (blog), April 13, 2012, http://www.pen.org/blog/?p=11198.
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