Ethiopia Is Losing The Internet Wars And Facing Challenges On the Ground

Ethiopia’s Internet penetration is at 3 percent, according to Freedom House—an independent watchdog organization based in Washington D.C. The second most populated country in sub-Saharan Africa is unable to shake off protests that started in November of 2015. Activists promoted the popular unrest on social media.

The protests that started in late November and caught international media’s attention demanded a halt to Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development plan also known as Addis Ababa Master Plan at the time. Before the mainstream media picked the stories up, Twitter and Facebook were on the scene. Peaceful protests in Oromia—the most populous regional state in Ethiopia, claimed 140 lives according to human rights organizations’ report.

Facebook users posted and shared a video of a funeral service for Bekele Seboka—a student protester killed by Ethiopian security forces. Thousands attended the funeral service. They chanted, and promised to carry the torch forward.

Hundreds of graphic pictures depicting the atrocity of Ethiopian government continuously appeared on Facebook and Twitter—shared—retweeted—liked—commented. The anger grew. Protests intensified.

Ethiopian government found itself at the receiving end of condemnation from international community. Before the U.S. State Department issued the first statement regarding Ethiopian security forces’ heavy handedness in handling peaceful protests, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power tweeted her concern. Activists liked the tweet; retweeted it.

Protesters in Oromia display OLF flag on a billboard
Protesters in Oromia display OLF flag on a billboard Unknown/Facebook / The HornPost

Feeling the heat, the Ethiopian government announced the scrapping of the Addis Ababa Master Plan. The West welcomed the news, and applauded. It did not impress Facebookville and Twitterverse.

Soon, Facebook posts describing the deceitful nature of the announcement were shared and liked thousands of times. Four months later, the protests never let up. Instead, they morphed into a demand for regime change.

Recently, the flag of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a banned opposition group in Ethiopia is flying in Oromia towns. Facebook is on it; Twitter just repeats it.

The social media activists believe their contribution is making a difference in Ethiopia. Solomon Ungashe, PhD, who frequently updates his Facebook status with up to date news from Ethiopia, says he has a network of “reporters” throughout Oromia, who provide him with information.

Birhanu Lenjiso, who regularily tweets with #OromoProtests hashtag believes the social media campaign “has a lot to contribute in terms of creating awareness among international community.” Lenjiso points to his interactions with Western politicians for optimism. “People are watching us,” he added.

Ethiopian government deploys social media trolls of its own, whose main role is personally attacking opposition and misinformation.

Dramatic changes as in Arab Spring are not expected in Ethiopia, because of government’s monopoly over information and communications technologies and underdeveloped services. Only 2% of Ethiopian homes are equipped with internet access. Mobile phone penetration is at 32%, compared to the regional 74%. Mobile internet access is even harder to come by due to high-priced data package provided by EthioTelecom. Yet, the dictatorial regime is losing control of information to social media activists.

Ethiopians pack cybercafés for slow and expensive internet access to check their emails, and click ‘Like’ on pictures of their nieces and nephews in America. According to tests done by Freedom House consultant, logging into email could take as long as six minutes, while opening an email attachment could take as long as eight minutes at the cybercafés.

Ethiopia has been censoring the internet since 2006. Opposition websites, blogs, URL shortening tools, and storify (social curation tool) are some of the targets of Ethiopian governments.

Dictators like Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia keep a limited internet open for their own benefits while others like Kim Jong Un chose to shut it down altogether. In a blog post for Washington Post, Espen Geelmyden described findings from a Journal of Peace Research, where nations including china, Vietnam, Iran and Venezuela use the internet to crack down on dissent. Likewise, Ethiopia is one of those countries that use the internet as a tool of oppression and spying on opposition and journalists. Researchers at Citizen Lab confirmed Ethiopian government used a malware to spy on journalists. Reports indicate Ethiopia paid millions of dollars to Italian company named Hacking Team.

In some court cases, Ethiopian government used Facebook posts and comments as evidence against people it accused of “terrorism” and “inciting violence”.

Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four political organizations based on ethnicity is known for eradicating free press. According to Reporters Without Borders—France-based international non-profit organization, Ethiopia ranks #142 of 180 countries on Press Freedom Index; closed more than six newspapers in 2014 alone, jailed bloggers and journalists before May 2015 elections. At least 30 journalists fled the country. In addition, Ethiopia repeatedly jams foreign-based broadcasts like Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and Oromia Media Network (OMN).

Update: A wrong expansion of EPRDF (abbreviation) was used in an earlier version of this article.

As originally published on February 22, 2016.