Ethiopia: Social media and news websites blocked by government to prevent protests
Google transparency report shows dramatic drop in internet traffic out of Ethiopia on two days when at least 100 people were killed by security forces during protest
16 news sites and access to WhatsApp blocked between June and October
“As far as the Ethiopian government is concerned, social media is a tool for extremists... The reality, though, is very different” – Michelle Kagari
The Ethiopian government systematically and illegally blocked access to social media and news websites in its efforts to crush dissent and prevent reporting of attacks on protesters by security forces during a wave of protests over the last year, a new report released today shows.
Research conducted by Amnesty International and the Open Observatory of Network Interference shows that between June and October this year during times of heightened tension and protests, access to WhatsApp and at least 16 news outlets was blocked, especially in the Oromia region.
Since November last year, thousands of people from Oromia have taken to the streets to protest against possible land seizures under the government’s Addis Ababa Masterplan, which aims to expand the capital’s administrative control into the region. The government declared a six-month state of emergency in October this year in response to the protests.
The study was conducted to investigate whether and to what extent internet censorship was actually taking place after contacts of Amnesty and the Open Observatory of Network Interference in Ethiopia consistently reported unusually slow internet connections and inability to access social media websites.
Testimonies gathered by Amnesty from different parts of Oromia found that social media mobile applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, have been largely inaccessible since early March this year, especially in the Oromia region where residents were waging protests against the government since last November.
The Ethiopian government is also reported to have blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Viber during the National University Exam week (9 – 14 July 2016) so as “to prevent students being distracted from studying during the exam period”.
Amnesty contacts also reported that internet access on mobile devices had been completely blocked in Amhara, Addis Ababa and Oromia in the lead up to protests in the three regions on 6 and 7 August.
This was confirmed in Google’s transparency reports for the period between July and November this year, which showed a dramatic drop in internet traffic out of Ethiopia on the two days when at least 100 people were killed by security forces during the protests.
Amnesty International’s Deputy East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes Director Michelle Kagari said:
"It’s clear that as far as the Ethiopian government is concerned, social media is a tool for extremists peddling bigotry and hate and therefore they are fully justified in blocking internet access. The reality, though, is very different. The widespread censorship has closed another space for Ethiopian’s to air the grievances that fuelled the protests.
“The internet blocking had no basis in law, and was another disproportionate and excessive response to the protests. This raises serious concerns that overly broad censorship will become institutionalised under the state of emergency.
“Rather than closing off all spaces for people to express their concerns, the authorities need to actively engage with, and address the underlying human rights violations that have fuelled the protests over the last year. “We urge the government to refrain from blocking access to internet sites and instead commit its resources to addressing its citizens’ legitimate grievances.”
Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology used to filter websites
The report also found that the Ethiopian government uses Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology to filter access to websites. DPI is a technology that can be bought and deployed on any network. Though it has many legitimate functions, it can also enable monitoring and filtering of internet traffic.
The Open Observatory of Network Interference’s Maria Xynou said:
“Our findings provide incontrovertible evidence of systematic interference with access to numerous websites belonging to independent news organisations and political opposition groups, as well as sites supporting freedom of expression and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights.
“Tor Metrics data illustrate that more and more people were trying to access censorship circumvention tools, such as TOR, which indicated that the internet was inaccessible through the normal routes. This all paints a picture of a government intent on stifling expression and free exchange of information.”
Ethiopia has been hit by a wave of protests since November 2015 when ethnic Oromos took to the streets to protest against possible land seizures under the government’s Addis Ababa Masterplan, which aimed to expand the capital’s administrative control into Oromia.
The protests later spread to Amhara, with demands for an end to arbitrary arrests, as well as respect for regional autonomy rights enshrined in the constitution.
Most of the protests were met with excessive force from the security forces. The worst incident involved the death of possibly hundreds of protesters in a stampede on 2 October at Bishoftu.
Protest groups say the stampede was caused by the security forces’ unnecessary and excessive use of force. The government has denied this, instead blaming the deaths on “anti-peace forces.”