It has been a month of complete shutdown of mobile Internet, data and social media access in Ethiopia. While in the past it has been common practice by the government to block certain websites deemed as enemy of the state, this month’s blanket shutdown of Internet services affecting every cell subscriber is unprecedented.
The government of Ethiopia has faced unprecedented protests and riots not seen in its 25-year-rule. Peaceful protests have deteriorated and led to the loss of lives and property. The government’s strong handed response has been noted around the world. From the firing of plastic bullets to the right-to-kill, the state and regional governments have been given unheard of power.
So far, more than 400 people have lost their lives. And there have been destruction of farms and factories of local and foreign investors who had helped create thousands of jobs. The government has argued that the turmoil has given it duty and a right to declare a ‘state of emergency’ on its 90-million-plus population in order to preserve the constitutional order.
The new emergency order seeks to prevent people from watching certain media outlets and from accessing social media to communicate with and promote certain perspectives. Freedom of expression, including the use of signs considered offensive to the state, such as the reading and distributions of signs deemed offensive, are to be considered illegal and subject to harsh and swift justice.
It is with this the backdrop of legal framework that the government has decided to shutdown mobile Internet and data services and block social media platforms. The authorities insisted that such actions were unavoidable under the state of emergency, declaring that a situation of national danger or disaster exists under which the government had to suspend normal constitutional procedures to avoid anarchy.
The Ethiopian government is already known for the monitoring and spying of Internet services, and filtering of Internet services by regularly using firewalls which often slowed down and obstructed access. Problems of accessing social networking sites have been reported in some localities of the Oromia Region, especially during the anti-government protests. However, blocking all sites nationwide under the new state of emergency declaration is a first of its kind.
The blanket shutdown and outright blockages of social media had come amidst the protests in August. Authorities had said social media platforms were blocked to ensure that students take the school leaving exam without interference and without having the exams stolen and posted online by activists from abroad.
There also came days where the protests escalated to such an extreme form of violence that the government felt compelled to shut down Internet in every part of Ethiopia. It is to be noted that access to mobile data and Internet of services and social media started in earnest on Oct. 3, three days before the state of emergency was declared.
The issue at hand is the relationship between security and liberty. The need to promote peaceful co-existence by all means vs. individual rights. Security and liberty have slippery definitions depending on who is doing the defining. They make the debate fluid and difficult. The fact is civil liberties including the right for access to information and privacy are definitely sacred yet not cast in stone.
The Human Right Convention puts a break on interferences on such rights, by putting the bar high and only allowing the curtailing of such rights as ‘necessary and ensuring the desired results. Sacrificing basic rights makes citizens less free without making them more secure, and amounts to destroying freedom in order to defend it, without feeling any more secure.
The dictionary defines non-derogable within a legal context to stipulate “those rights specified in a treaty that nation states cannot violate under any circumstances.”
Yes they are derogable – the argument is not to say that such rights cannot be limited under any circumstances and a pragmatic reality that is recognised by the demarcation of derogable and non-derogable rights. Against the backdrop of burnt factories and institutions, and flickers of speech acts, a more subtle process of civil liberty erosion is occurring, which seems a comparatively lesser evil. But the violation of civil liberties lost is soon forgotten, as a process of normalisation occurs to blend extraordinary measures into the legal system.
Some wars are fought to maintain liberty and if that is the case, then it is possible to argue that rights are valued more than security. If in the process liberty is crushed, creating a norm that can possibly ease the action for the following time; there will not be any argument or rationale that supports the actions of the state. For the state to uphold its security, there is responsibility for the leadership within the state to maintain and secure the rights of its citizens. This includes the right for information and life.
Innumerable themes are illustrative of the difficult juxtaposition of freedom of expression and information and national security, in which a delicate balance may be less in evidence than fervour for erosion of rights in response to perceived crises.
Yet what actually took place in the Ethiopian case is far from the justifiable abstraction, though it springs its legitimacy from the same arguments. Closer look of the situation on the ground shows a huge diversion from it. The case at hand falls in two basic criterion that needs to be qualified to show cause and effect relationship, direct gains of security for a citizen who was required or forced to abandon his/her liberties.
Putting the social media an Internet based exchange of information at the centre of the protest is a shaky move. The role of social media in flaming the Arab Spring is well noted. But giving undue credit to the role of Facebook and Twitter in those instances underestimates the organic and already grounded reasons and questions why those uprisings occurred.
The government’s repeated admission of mal-administration not attached with action based solution has resulted in this. Social media players as far as they are or given Internet penetration, the mismatch between the actors on the ground at the protest and skirmish, and the affluent urban-based Internet agitators breaks the connection between social media activities and actors- protestors or destructive forces , depending on what one wants to call them. It fails the test of cause and effect. The protest admittedly has a multidimensional social, political and economic grounding, yet is surely boosted by the use of technology. Any measure not addressing the substantive cases and process is short-lived and out of the frame of liberty security trade-off debate.
The gains so far reported by the government are peaceful environment for investment and other business to get back on track. This is huge success reported at the expense of limiting civil liberties – a means not justified by its end. The only end that can justify such limits on freedom of information is stable constitutional order and good governance, and democratic space – which by any chance cannot be achieved in this means. Securing peaceful investment environment has gained the investors a great success, but at the expense of individual liberties remotely connected to the gains. Such wider interpretation of gains and cost again is illusory.
Without this necessity argued and defended in front of legitimate people’s representatives, in this case House of People’s Representative, it is a dangerous unmonitored domain of the executive and a is tricky and a fertile ground for normalisation.
No official prior notice or after the fact explanation was given by authorities addressing the issue. If ever communicated, it was done by way of addressing few scanty questions by journalists whom officials get away with easily. They are normalising the situation and shy away from any time frame.
The body that makes the ultimate decision to securitise such rights has to present a convincing scenario where every individual who is asked to put personal liberties and rights into the public stock in a smallest portion possible. The aggregate of these, the smallest units, should produce the desired output only. Anything that extends beyond this is abuse of power and does not respect justice.
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