The Web is 20: Are Ethiopian media on board? By Hindessa Abdul
Though technological innovations are a long process, for the sake of history or patent issues, it has become customary to say something was invented on such day. So the World Wide Web (WWW or 3W) is said to have been invented in August 1991. The British computer scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is credited with the invention of this powerful tool. Now the Web is 20 years young. Happy birthday!
Over the last couple of weeks various media outlets have been discussing how the Web has impacted the lives of people. In some of them Berners-Lee himself was a speaker. Most importantly he was talking about access to Internet as a human right issue.
According to Netcraft, an Internet monitoring company that tracks Web growth, there are close to 300 million Websites in the world and the number is growing by the hours. The Web has evolved in to a more interactive medium. Unlike its earlier days of text based format, currently it has all kind of contents: images, audio and video. There are already Internet radios and television stations. Above all, there are social networking sites that have transformed the way people communicate.
The Web has dramatically changed the media landscape. It has also changed the way we access and interact with information. There are already plenty of news media that exist only online, to that list one can mention the vast majority of foreign based Ethiopian news websites.
Philip Meyer, in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” published in 2004, predicts that the Internet will finally consume the print publication that by 2043 newsprint dies in America . There are already news papers like the Italian daily La Repubblica whose Website gets a million visitors a day. The New York Times also gets the same traffic surpassing its print edition’s circulation.
The World Wide Web has empowered the otherwise passive audience to be part of the movement. When Blogger was launched by Google, every person with access to Internet was given a chance to be a journalist; to report events in their neighbourhood in the way they perceive it, without the spin of the mainstream media.
Ordinary guys with digital camera who found themselves at the right place and at the right time were suddenly becoming photographers of choice. All they needed to do was just uploading those pictures on photo sharing sites of Flicker, Photobucket, Shutterfly and others.
The 2008 London underground bombing videos were shot by ordinary men with simple digital video cameras and cell phones. When Saddam Hussein was hanged, those grim pictures were recorded in a cell phone and smuggled out of the execution chamber. Video clips of the protests in Syria are for the most part shot by amateurs with cell phones who upload them on YouTube.
The Arab Spring revolution for long time will be associated with social networking sites. Some even call them the Twitter Revolution. Twitter and Facebook were the platforms used to jumpstart those uprisings.
Ethiopia gets onboard
The Internet service was introduced to the country in 1997 by the then Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation, which is the sole Internet Service Provider (ISP). Available data indicate that the Geneva based Cyber Ethiopia was the first Website to be launched in that same year. But Ethiopian on line media started to make their marks around the Millennium. It seems the Ethio- Eritrean border conflict of 1998-2000 contributed to the launch of several websites around that time, as the propaganda war was as important as that of the battle ground.
From then on, they started to play significant role as source of information and a platform for exchanging ideas. This was more evident in the wake of the controversial May 2005 elections. That event also created many blogs following the government crackdown on private media. Addis Ferenj, Aqumada, Carpediemethiopia, Enset, Ethioblog, Ethiopundit, Ethiozagol, Meskelsquare, Urael, Weichegud and a dozen other blogs became alternative source of news and views. Some of them like Addis Ferenj and Meskelsquare were run by expatriates.
With less than one percent Ethiopians accessing the Internet, it may be too soon to talk of its impact in the country. Apart from the global organizations like the International Telecommunication Union(ITU) or United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which are legally bound to include every member state in their statistics, many Web indexing companies do not include Ethiopia in their rankings as the user is so insignificant to merit indexing.
Even when local users decide to go on line, Ethiopian sites are not in their top priority. The foreign based Ethiopian sites are blocked for not being political correct. So no wonder many look elsewhere. According to a recent statistics on Ethiopian users, the entire top five Websites with the most hit are not Ethiopian, of course Facebook being the top most.
It is difficult to establish the number of Ethiopian on line media, lack of a central registrar like press license issuers being one of them. There are local media hosted with the Ethio Telecom, whose domain names are registered there. There are also the foreign based ones hosted with different companies. So that makes it difficult to give a credible estimate of the number of Ethiopian websites.
However, it is safe to assume most of the papers and news agencies in the country now have websites but their quality and access is a different issue.
In the last couple of years, it has become customary to release yearly and quarterly rankings of the various websites. Though there are a number of organizations that monitor browsing behaviour, Alexa seems to be the most popular web traffic reporting company. Many like to use Alexa’s ranking as a benchmark. Some of the Ethiopian online media also use their Alexa standing as a promotional tool. But one can observe a shortcoming here. Since most of the foreign based Ethiopian sites are blocked, they will not get the traffic of local users which negatively affects their ranking. On the flip side, the ruling party financed on line media is given a free ride on the domestic Internet traffic which inflates the users’ number, creating a wrong impression of popularity.
Be that as it may, over the years Cyberethiopia, Ethiomedia, Ethiopian Review, Nazret, (all in alphabetical order) among others, have usually found a spot in the top ten list. The relatively late comer entertainment and video sharing sites like Addis Zefen, DireTube and EthioTube are also faring very well.
• Low Internet penetration: With 0.5% penetration rate , Ethiopia is the last in the African continent in par with Liberia that has emerged from a protracted civil war a couple of years ago.
• Poor information technology (IT) infrastructure: Even with the so called Broadband Internet, it is very difficult to download multimedia for lack of enough bandwidth. Ethio Telecom eternally blames it on vandalism or on “terrorists” whenever the cables are cut off.
• Censorship: Ethiopia is listed among the growing number of nations on Internet censorship. Dozens of websites and broadcastings are blocked with the help of the Chinese government. To add insult to injury, the Chinese are awarded contract after contract to build Internet infrastructure. They sure will be tightening the knot as they go about implementing their tasks.
• Monopoly of the Internet: The second most populous nation in the Continent has a single ISP, which is Ethio Telecom. The monopoly is resulting in all kinds of control, inefficiency and corruption.
On a positive note…
• The release of the world’s popular operating systems of Microsoft Vista, Windows 7 and Microsoft Office in the Amharic language is something to cheer about. For long time the Web has been dominated by the English language. And the decision of Google to include the three local languages in its main search site has a far reaching impact.
• Ethiopian bloggers are said to be among the best in the Continent. As it was remarked sometimes back, the Ethiopian blog is considered one of the busiest and fastest-growing blogging scene in the whole of Africa .
Creating more online media and materials in the vernaculars will help people easily understand contents. That will in turn transform them from being mere consumers into active users by sending feedbacks and opinions.
Ending the monopoly of Ethio Telecom on delivery of Internet services will be the single most important favour to do for Ethiopians in this age of technology.
Ethiopia has largely missed out on information technology. The Web has gone a long way from the simple text based scribbles to a whole lot of a different state. Currently it is in what is known as the Web 2.0 stage. There are talks of what the third phase looks like. With the introduction of the apps on smart phones, some are predicting the demise of the Web as we know it today.
From what can be seen, we have a lot of catching up to do. The world has decidedly turned to the online world. Backing off from that trend is impossible. That is where the present and the future lie.