Last week, the government in Ethiopia approved, much to the outcry of the rights activists, a new Computer Crime Proclamation, which, according to the government, is designed to protect the state and citizens from crimes committed using computers. It is not clear if governments, especially the US and individual EU member states, which are Ethiopia’s allies, could join those who are voicing their concerns about this new bill and its implications to freedom of expression.
In mid-April, as key meetings and forums on security took place in Ethiopia – The Munich Security Conference and the Tana High Level Forum on Security in Africa – news on at least two issues currently gripping Ethiopia were largely absent. The first is Internet filtering – or, the issue of blocking access to the Internet and media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. The second is the communal critical process – or, the issue of social movements and popular activism, for example, the 5-month long protests by the Oromo nation.
For the Ethiopian public that is largely disconnected and grappling with one of the lowest rates of Internet access in the world at 3%, any ability to participate in online and in on-the-ground activism has far-reaching implications. And those who do have access are subject to one of the most censorious media infrastructures in Africa. A number of investigations suggest that Ethiopia’s use of denying network access is not new.
Reports from the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group (Ottawa) that analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practices reveal more than a decade of government-sanctioned activities (by the former Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation and its successor, Ethio Telecom), to exscind information by, about and between Ethiopian and international commentators on sports, culture and politics. In 2007, Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Oxford Internet Institute, cited increases in state-control and repression of public sovereignty as the frameworks of a “balkanized” Internet.
Welcome to the Ethiopian Wide Web
A country that deliberately erodes freedoms through coercion poses a serious challenge for actors collaborating on a “unique intercontinental partnership” aimed at discussing and bringing sustainable security solutions to the fore. Currently Ethiopia blocked access to several news and opposition websites run both from Ethiopia and abroad. In the midst of the recent Oromo protest social media and communication platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were all blocked in Oromia region and continue to be blocked, albeit on and off.
The consequences of these practices in Ethiopia and their implications should be of concern for security actors. In the hub of the African Union, the practices should raise serious concern. As the hashtag #tanaforum trended on Twitter in mid April, one tweet aptly put the issues at hand as, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it; I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” Other tweets pointed to an array of access-limiting interventions that the government in Ethiopia is employing to disconnect people and communities from expressing public opinion.
In the context of the Oromo Protests movement, and security meetings and forums that took place, actors should have taken note to define just what security issues mean. In the same country that these two important security forums took place protesters have been detained; hundreds have disappeared without a trace and several accounts maintain that more than 400 have been killed by government, military and extra-military forces. To the outcry of many in the international development community, including the US, federal prosecutors have now brought terrorism charges against tens of detainees including Bekele Gerba, a prominent member and first secretary general of the opposition, Oromo Federalist Congress.
It is no accident that the most current report on Ethiopia by Felix Horne from Human Rights Watch focuses on a correlation between this movement – “the biggest political crisis to hit the country since the 2005 elections,” and that which it articulates as a “Deafening Silence From Ethiopia.” The silence Horne refers to goes beyond a lack of Internet access, showing direct, practical cases of the government’s aversion towards journalists, and coercive mechanisms that it exacts to prevent public dialogue that would place its text of narratives into question.
Physical and digital battlefields
Not only are the battlefields for human rights freedoms and security physical and digital, they are intertwined. In a country that stifles democratic dissent and subordinates its citizens’ rights to public debate, how can “European-African cooperation” be at the nexus of any sustainable solution to eradicate one of these battlefields without acknowledging the existence of the other?
The Ethiopian government’s use of the ATP to silence dialogue is not new; although it continues to come under criticism, it has not halted. Mary Lawlor, executive director of Front Line Defenders, noted in her January 2016 article for the Irish Times, ‘We Must stop the killing of those who stand up for human rights, that “Ethiopia is a country which uses the pretext of terrorism to target human rights defenders.” More than a week after Bekele’s detention, the United States Department of State issued an appeal to the Ethiopian government that asserts a correlation between the ATP and the silencing of “independent voices.”
#OromoProtests & #HumanRights
The ability of Oromo Protests to open up a global dialogue about the grievances and desires of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group does not merit Internet combat or obfuscation, but inclusion and a competent socio-political reflex. Amongst its root causes are a history of targeted human rights abuses against the Oromo people, attempts to annihilate their culture, a “Master Plan” to confiscate their land to broaden the borders of Addis Abeba, and a widening drought that threatens the peoples of the Oromia region.
The recent Oromo Protests are therefore indelibly linked to national Oromo struggles for self-determination. Struggles cohere around land, language (knowledge, psyche and wisdom), and self-rule. Government responses to the demands towards these struggles have been piecemeal (land as a plot was answered by the 1974 revolution, but not at the level of a nation); the criminalization of language was given some reliefs following the 1991 overthrow of the military Derg; the creation of Oromia as a regional territorial unit after 1991 was a response to the struggle for land as country. However, all of these can be seen as only a symbolic response to the question of self-rule. In these respects, socio-political reflexes that once raised hopes and in tandem formed sources of legitimacy for the current government were undermined by the “Master Plan” which directly threatened to unhinge the very existence of Oromia as a territorial unit.
Bekele Gerba is not alone
The plethora of terrorism charges brought by the government against tens of Oromos who were arrested during the protests represents another, more targeted agenda to criminalize people struggling for human rights. On 14 January the State Department called on the government in Ethiopia to “refrain from silencing dissent” and on 29 April to curb its “reliance on the ATP” and to stop imprisoning people for exercising their rights. It is difficult to see if these statements bear any result.
Mary Lawlor of Human Rights defenders suggests that where several countries are concerned, development partner countries (citing Ireland and the European Union) rarely take up cases against human rights abuses for fear of negative impacts to development projects. But the important question is: what, exactly, are ‘partner countries’ funding?
On the security actors who attended the Tana Forum, another critical question that needs an answer is: what are these ‘actors’ legitimizing in electing to hold meetings in a country whose human rights record, along with militarized (and extra-military) responses to human rights are worsening? These meetings are often held to bolster “African-led solutions to security challenges”. This is a dubious outlook for a contemporary Ethiopia whose heavy-handed handling of domestic dissent will soon or later become the cause of instability both for itself and the Horn of Africa. Affairs of security and peace are not ‘separate but equal’; they are symbiotic.
The Blackout of #EthiopiaRising
A government that once touted narratives about political stability, industrial growth and investment – utilizing social media technologies and platforms, and the hashtag #EthiopiaRising – must now take seriously the fact that #OromoProtests represented credible responses to its narratives.
Internet and media blackouts point to an Ethiopian socio-political project to sow and grow the very seeds of marginalization that security actors meeting for these forums sought to resolve on a larger scale.
But there is a global community of onlookers who know that neither national, nor regional security questions can evolve, let alone become legitimate or sustainable, without the freedom and open dialogue by citizens. Similarly, there is a global community of onlookers begging those who attended security forums and meetings in Ethiopia to look beyond their meeting rooms and formal speeches; to look at, for example, Ethiopia’s use and abuse of the ATP and its relationship to silencing human rights defenders.