In the midst of a state of emergency, Ethiopia has disabled Internet access across the country, fearing students will be distracted by social media posts, marking the third big scale Internet interruption in a year.
The service was cut off by the monopoly telecommunications service provider, Ethio telecom, on May 30, 2017, as the 1.2 million 10th graders were preparing to sit for an exam the next day.
The cut-off occurred 11 months after the government has blocked social media sites throughout the country following an online leak of national exam papers, which eventually forced the government to postpone exam dates.
After five months of the first incident, the firewall of the Internet resurfaced after the political unrest that led to the state of emergency, mostly in Oromia region, followed by the unrest in Amhara Regional State.
Now a year after the leak, in the afternoon of last Tuesday, roughly around after 4:00 pm, individuals, businesses and various institutions found they were unable to use the Internet, making day to day operations extremely hard.
Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber were also disabled, making people unable to communicate with each other.
Contrary to various local and international media reports, the intention of disabling the Internet services was not for fear of exam leaks and online distribution. It was, rather, a move to eliminate distractions, so that students would find their focus to study during the exams, according to Negeri Lencho (PhD), minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO).
“We have blocked the Internet to protect students from fallacious claims on social media,” he said.
However, the Internet was turned off without the knowledge of the National Education Assessment & Examination Agency (NEAEA), the government body mandated to handle exams, according to Redi Shifa, communications head at the Agency.
“We have not requested Ethio telecom or other government bodies to disable the Internet,” he told Fortune in a phone interview last Thursday. “We are prepared to overcome any leakage.”
Even so, the press release that came out from GCAO says the suspension is only applicable to social media platforms. But it was a complete blackout in almost all institutions.
“It is much better to save the future of students than opening the Internet and causing serious damage,” Negeri told Fortune.
Abdurahim Mohammed, communications director at Ethio telecom, on the other hand, declining from commenting on the issue saying the information about the firewall of the Internet was provided by GCAO.
Also, the action of Internet blockage has brought frustration to businesses and is affecting their performance.
The Internet disruption is affecting the financial sector severely, according to an executive who works at the Cooperative Bank of Oromia (CBO), which has over 222 branches.
“We have not collected remittance ever since the Internet service was suspended,” he said.
For many banks, the decision to block the Internet service did not come at a good time.
“As it happened at the beginning of the Muslim fasting season, the damage is huge,” said a branch manager at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE). “We could have collected over 13,000 dollars a day.”
Apparently, the effect of the firewall was not limited to the financial sector. Other lines of business are being affected including the hotel industry, which lost over 380 million Br three months after the declaration of the state of emergency.
“A foreigner who was staying in our hotel returned just a day after the Internet blackout,” said a hotel owner, explaining the adverse effect of Internet firewall on the hotel business and the tourism industry.
The frequent act of disabling – or the blanket shutting down of – the Internet costs the country a great deal.
Brookings Institution estimated that a 30-day disruption of the Internet a year ago cost the state over 8.5 million dollars.
Although the economic contribution of the Internet to GDP in Ethiopia is 0.6pc, Ethio telecom earns 20pc of its total income, 28 billion Br, from Internet services and data users.
The same trend holds true for a number of Internet users, reaching at 20 million
Estimated from the trends observed in the previous years, Ethio telecom could lose over 50 million Br as a result of a three-day Internet firewall alone.
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