Internet intrusion and increased repression in Ethiopia

By Graham Peebles

19 June 2012 (Redress) – Graham Peebles views the Meles Zenawi regime’s chronic suppression of the internet and media freedoms in Ethiopia and asks how long will Addis Ababa’s allies in the US, Britain and the European Union tolerate the regime’s flagrant violations of rights enshrined in domestic and international law.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are basic human rights and are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not for a government – whose function is to serve the people – to decide who or indeed if these freedoms should be allowed. Although etched into the Ethiopian constitution, freedom in its various democratic manifestations remains a fantasy for the people, who are increasingly controlled, inhibited and impoverished. The Ethiopian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is imposing ever more stringent and repressive measures of subjugation. If it could it would control and restrict the very air the people breath.

Internet control and privacy

In its latest assault on the human rights of the people, the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) decreed certain activities on the internet to be illegal. Access to the internet inside Ethiopia is very poor. According to Open Net Initiative (ONI) Ethiopia “has the second lowest internet penetration rate in sub-Saharan Africa (only Sierra Leone’s is lower)… Only 360,000 people had internet access in June 2009, a penetration rate of 0.4 per cent.”

The Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC), a government owned and run body, and the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (ETA) have exclusive control over internet access in the country. According to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RWB) on 7 June, “Ethiopia’s only ISP [Internet Service Provider], state-owned Ethio-Telecom, has just installed a system for blocking access to the Tor network, which lets users browse anonymously and access blocked websites”. In order to achieve such selective blocking, according to RWB, “Ethio-Telecom must be using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), an advanced network filtering method” that is used by repressive states, such as China and Iran. This sophisticated system, RWB says, “allows governments to easily target politically sensitive websites and quickly censor any expression of opposition views”.

Internet filtering in Ethiopia has been in place for some years, according to Freedom House. Its report, “Freedom on the Net 2011”, states: “Tests conducted by Freedom House found that in mid-2010 the websites of Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were inaccessible. In March 2010, Voice of America reported that its website was blocked in Ethiopia.” The BBC reported that in June 2010 emails sent from Ethiopia to the Committee to Protect Journalists were also blocked.

This latest invasion of privacy and restriction of freedoms comes on the back of a new law passed on 24 May which, among other things, bans the use of Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) hardware and software, such as Skype, which enables people to use the internet as the transmission medium for telephone calls, and imposes a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment for the heinous crime of making a telephone call to a family member or friend.

Internet access, and national and international calls, which have to be made through the state telecommunications provider, the ETC, are extremely expensive. A 2010 study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) found that Ethiopia’s broadband internet connections were among the most expensive in the world when compared with monthly income, and come second only to those in the Central African Republic.

The new legislation also allows the government to inspect any imports of voice communication equipment and accessories, and to ban such imported shipments without prior notification. One suspects this may well simply be the first step in establishing total government control over access and use of the internet, leading to monitoring of emails, social network sites, chat platforms and so on, all of which could now be targeted and monitored. Indeed, RWB  has already voiced its fears that the DPI “will be misused for surveillance purposes by a government that already subjects the political opposition and privately-owned media to a great deal of harassment”.

Up until now government acts of repression have been mainly targeted at independent journalists, political activists and opposition supporters living and working outside the country. Journalists working abroad and publishing online find themselves attacked in print by comments from government stooges, as Freedom House states in its report. It said: “In addition to censorship, the authorities use regime apologists, paid commentators and pro-government websites to proactively manipulate the online news and information landscape.” This new move, however, throws a noose around all internet users. As ONI states, “Ethiopia is increasingly jailing journalists, and the government has shown a growing propensity toward repressive behaviour both off- and online. It seems likely that censorship will become more extensive as internet access expands across the country.” Such is democracy under Meles Zenawi.

Unlawful laws of control

The reasons offered for the new legislation by the regime are the well-trodden justifications of the unjust, made by the unlawful. RWB quotes the authorities, as saying that “the ban was needed on national security grounds and because VoIP posed a threat to the state’s monopoly of telephone communications”. Duplicitous at best, such actions of extreme repression are born out of paranoia. And let us point out there should be no such state telecommunications monopoly anyway.

These measures fit into a broader pattern of restrictions of freedom, all of which violate human rights laws. The Anti Terrorist Proclamation that came into effect in 2009, to a chorus of international criticism and fury, set the tone of repression and is being followed with ever-greater ferocity. The Ethiopian constitution, a legally binding document, of course proclaims universally recognized freedoms – all of which the government contravenes. As ONI states, “The Ethiopian government maintains strict control over access to the internet and online media, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and free access to information.”

What the constitution says

Relevant constitutional statements of intent specifically relating to the media; include Article 29on the “Right of Freedom of Thought, Opinion and Expression”. This states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.

It also says: “Freedom of the press and other mass media, and freedom of artistic creativity, is guaranteed.”

Regarding the right to privacy, Article 26 makes plain that “Everyone has the right to the inviolability of his notes and correspondence, including postal letters, and communications made by means of telephone, telecommunications and electronic devices. It adds that “Public officials shall respect and protect these rights.”

Censorship by the printing presses

In tandem with the current illegal attacks on internet freedom, the state-owned printing presses are tightening the screws of suppression and are, according to RWB, “demanding the right to censor the newspapers they print”.

Not only is there a state monopoly on telecommunications, but the press are also state owned. There is only one Amharic-language daily national paper, with around 32,000 readers, in a country of 85 million people.

Both television and radio are firmly under the control of the Meles regime.

Berhanena Selam is the main state printer, and has a virtual monopoly on newspaper and magazine printing. Along with other state-owned printers, it is trying to impose political censorship on media content before publication. According to RWB, “In a proposed ‘standard contract for printing’ recently circulated by state printers, they [the printers] assume the right to vet and reject articles prior to printing.” Article 10 of the proposed contract, entitled “Declining to print content violating the law”, states “the printer has the right to refuse to print any text if he has ‘adequate reason’ to think it breaks the law”. This in itself breaks the law as it contravenes Article 29 of the constitution, which prohibits any form of press censorship.

Not only do the actions of the Meles regime – a centralist government in the extreme – contravene the Ethiopian constitution, but the the grave breaches of human rights contravene numerous legally binding international treaties signed by the government. Internet access is a human right and is covered by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This has been clearly emphasized by the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, who has reminded “all states of their positive obligation to promote or to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise this right, including the internet”. He also stresses that “there should be as little restriction as possible to the flow of information via the internet”.

Complete control of the media pertains inside Ethiopia, and these controls are becoming ever more intense with greater disinformation and manipulation of the press and the primary source of news, television.

The Meles regime exercises a brutal and deeply repressive dictatorship. How long will the West, whose dollars, pounds and euros support the needy throughout Ethiopia, continue to turn a blind eye to the myriad human rights violations and a deaf ear to the cries of the people for justice and freedom? Sit not in silence America and Britain as your strategic, undemocratic “ally” in the Horn of Africa suppresses and controls the people of Ethiopia while claiming to act in their interest. Demand that international law is observed, federal law honoured and human rights upheld.

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