Freedom of Media – Ethiopia continued…
A 3: Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because of a months-long internet shutdown in Tigray, which hampered reporting on the Tigray conflict and limited the efficacy of humanitarian aid, and nationwide connectivity restrictions imposed by the government in July 2020 after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa.
The government frequently imposes connectivity restrictions, often for political means and with little transparency. On November 3, 2020, a total internet and telecommunications blackout was imposed in Tigray after a conflict broke out between Ethiopian and Tigrayan security forces. The shutdown remained ongoing as of mid-June 2021, though Ethio Telecom stated that it restored call services in parts of Tigray, including the regional capital of Mekelle, in February. The disruption created an information blackout during the conflict, preventing media from reporting on Ethiopian, Eritrean, and TPLF military actions that human rights groups have since described as mass atrocity crimes. The communications restrictions also impeded the documentation of rights abuses and distribution of humanitarian aid; security forces have blockaded food supplies to cause mass food insecurity, weaponized sexual violence, and attacked aid workers.
Ethio Telecom blamed “law enforcement operations” for the shutdown, releasing closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera footage of armed individuals forcefully entering their Mekelle compound and deactivating the power distribution source. A March 2021 statement from Prime Minister Abiy blamed unnamed “perpetrators” for the attack on the Ethio Telecom Mekelle site and accused the TPLF of damaging fiber-optic cables.
On June 28, 2021, after the coverage period, Tigray’s telecommunications and electricity infrastructure were disconnected by the Ethiopian government as the Ethiopian National Defense Forces withdrew from the region. The federal government had announced a unilateral ceasefire earlier that day. As of July 2021, the blackout remained in effect and continued to constrain humanitarian operations.
On June 30, 2020, Ethiopian authorities imposed a nationwide internet shutdown following the murder of prominent Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa in Addis Ababa. Connectivity was partially restored on July 14 for some fixed-line broadband users, but most of the country remained offline until July 23, 2020, when mobile networks were restored. Protests in the aftermath of Hundessa’s death saw over 200 people killed. Following the murder, young Oromo people reportedly targeted non-Oromo and non-Muslim people in the Oromia region, with much of the violence happening before the internet shutdown.
In early January 2020, during the previous coverage period, the government disconnected mobile phone, landline, and internet services in parts of Oromia amid reports of fighting between government forces and a splinter faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which advocates for a sovereign state for the Oromo ethnic group. The government restored services in early April. Human rights groups warned that the Oromia shutdown limited access to critical information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December 2019, the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) disclosed that the government disabled the Ethiopian internet infrastructure for 20 minutes to counter a cyberattack targeting the country’s financial infrastructure (see C8).
In late June 2019, during the previous coverage period, the government imposed a nationwide internet shutdown that lasted at least ten days. The shutdown, which affected both mobile and fixed-line connections, followed the assassination of government and military officials in the northern region of Amhara, which prompted fear of political and communal tensions. That same month, mobile internet services were suspended nationwide for seven days, which some Ethiopians speculated was a measure to stop students from cheating on national exams that week.
The government has justified internet shutdowns, which sometimes occurred in the context of political and ethnic violence, by citing the need to maintain security and public order. Fixed-line and mobile internet services were shut down for most of August 2018 in the eastern Sumale region, where federal troops were engaged in clashes with local authorities. Mobile internet access was separately shut down for three days in September 2018 in Addis Ababa following protests and an outbreak of ethnic violence. At least 23 people were killed in the violence, with some observers estimating over 50 deaths.
Until April 2018, internet and mobile service shutdowns were commonly imposed in response to the large-scale demonstrations that began in late 2015—triggered by a government plan to appropriate land from the Oromia region for an expansion of the capital—and later spread to other regions and ethnic groups. For example, after student protests led to violent clashes in December 2017, the government imposed a blanket internet shutdown on all regional states, leaving haphazard access available only in Addis Ababa. Mobile internet services were then shut down nationwide for several days following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister in February 2018, as the country was placed under a state of emergency. Oromia experienced another unexplained internet blackout for over two weeks in March 2018. The process and legal underpinnings for the shutdowns were not clear, though officials claimed that they were necessary to prevent ethnic violence and curb the spread of false news and hate speech.
The Ethiopian government’s monopolistic control over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure via Ethio Telecom enables it to restrict information flows and access to the internet and mobile phone services. As a landlocked country, Ethiopia has no direct access to submarine cable landing stations; instead, it connects to the international internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and another that passes through Djibouti to an international undersea cable. All connections to the international internet are completely centralized under Ethio Telecom, allowing the government to cut off traffic at will.