Internet Intrusion: Increased Repression In Ethiopia – OpEd
Freedom of expression, of assembly and communication is a basic human right, enshrined as such 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 it 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 they could they would control and restrict the very air the people breath.
Web Control And Privacy
In their latest assault on the human rights of the people, the EPRDF regime decreed certain activities on the Internet to be illegal. Access to the Internet inside Ethiopia is very poor; according to Open Net Initiative (ONI) it “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%.” The Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation, a government owned and run body, along with the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (ETA) have exclusive control of Internet access throughout the country. Reporters Without Borders (RWB) 7th June, reports “Ethiopia’s only ISP, 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.”
One wonders where Ethiopia would obtain such a sophisticated system of spying utilised by repressive states, such as China and Iran, nervous of the freedom the Internet provides. RWB again, “it (DPI) 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, Freedom House 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 June2010 e-mails 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 24th May, which amongst other things bans the use of VoIP hardware and software. VoiP – Voice over Internet Protocol, Webopedia explains is “a category of hardware and software that enables people to use the Internet as the transmission medium for telephone calls”1 Meaning the use of services such as Skype are now outlawed, the penalty for doing so according to Al Jazeera “Users could face up to 15 years of jail time,”2 for the heinous crime of making a telephone call to a family member or friend. Internet access, national and international calls are all extremely expensive made through the ETC. A 2010 study by the International Telecommunication Union found that Ethiopia’s broadband internet connections were among the most expensive in the world when compared with monthly income, second only to those in the Central African Republic. The BBC 15th June states, “Internet cafes may be allowing people to make calls for far less than the cost of Ethiopia telecom, the state’s telecommunications provider that has the monopoly and charges very high prices – and doesn’t want to have its service undermined.”
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 permission or 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 e-mails, social network sites, chat platforms and so on. All could now be targeted and monitored. Reporters Without Borders said. “We fear that 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 towards 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 FH states in its report “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 Open Net Initiative 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, “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.
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 being followed with ever-greater ferocity. The Ethiopian constitution, a legally binding document, of course proclaims universally recognised freedoms – all of which it contravenes, as Open Net Initiative 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.”
Relevant constitutional statements of intent specifically relating to the media; Article 29. Right of Freedom of Thought, Opinion and Expression.
(2) 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.
(3) Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements:
B) Access to information of public interest.
Regarding The Right to Privacy. Article 26 makes plain (2) 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. (3) Public officials shall respect and protect these rights.
In tandem with the current (illegal) attacks on internet freedom the state owned printing presses are tightening the screws of suppression, as RWB reports, they are “demanding the right to censor the newspapers they print,” Not only is there a state monopoly on telecommunications but the press is also state owned. There is only one Amharic language Daily national paper, with around 32,000 readers, in a country of 85million people and 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 they are trying to impose political censorship on media content before publication. RWB, reports, “In a proposed ‘standard contract for printing’ recently circulated by state printers, they assume the right to vet and reject articles prior to printing.” Article 10 of the proposed contract, ‘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 states a) Prohibition of any form of (press) censorship.”
Not only do the actions of the Meles regime, a centralist government in the extreme, contravene domestic Federal law in the form of the constitution, the grave breaches of human rights are in breach of numerous legally binding international treatise, signed by the government. Internet access is a human right, being covered under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This has been clearly established by the United Nations, that states in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on The Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, in paragraph 66 “the Special Rapporteur reminds 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.” And in paragraph 68, “The Special Rapporteur emphasizes 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, controls, that under the direction of the EPRDF government are becoming more intense. Allowing for greater disinformation and manipulation within the press and the primary source of news, television. The Meles regime is a brutal deeply repressive dictatorship, for 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, 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, but act in their interest. Demand on their behalf that international law is observed, federal law honored, and human rights are upheld.
About the author:
Graham is Director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity, supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org