Last Wednesday, Addis Standard, an English online magazine, shared a report from Access Now, an advocacy group, on its Twitter page. The report suggested that “old habits die hard,” and that the government has blocked broadband and mobile internet connections in the eastern part of Ethiopia.
This was in the week after an altercation between the federal and the Somali regional government led to unrest in the town of Jijiga, capital of Somali Regional State. Federal troops had entered the city, and there were lootings, killings and the destruction of property. While both government officials and the public media barely mentioned the situation over the weekends, internet connections in Jigiga had been cut off.
This sparked criticism that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) administration was reneging on his promise of full disclosure to the public.
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Taye Atskeselassie, commented on the the report that the magazine shared, saying, “The internet (social media) has brought out the beast within our soul. Has revealed the ordeal & mayhem of mankind. The burning question is shall we keep on glamorising the internet or check it so that it isn’t used to incite the killing [of] a fellow human; i.e human rights violations.”
The ambassador has a point. Discourse on social media is often course, inflammatory, naïve and even false. Researchers have found that it has proven effective in encouraging polarisation and stereotyping. Across the globe, social media has assaulted one of the most fundamental pillars of democracy, which is an informed public, by serving as a marketplace for misinformation.
But “checking” the internet or restricting its use is not a practical solution that positively contributes to democracy. It is incumbent upon the government to create a citizenry that is informed about its rights and duties and is actively and constructively engaged in politics.
This entails opening the space for the spread of civic organisations and independent media outlets, where ideas and opinions are freely discussed and debated. The most accommodative and practical concept will win. Most humans, after all, are reasonable. Such a path though is arduous for any government. It requires a great deal of patience and far-sightedness to accomplish.
The easier path to follow is to restrict the use of the internet. But which case necessitates restriction, who gets to decide and how oversight could be insured is a slippery slope. In many countries, journalists and opposition leaders have been placed under arrest for allegedly inciting violence or endangering the national interest, while governments have used the justification to flaunt transparency and thus accountability. Worse, restricting the flow of information, as was the case in Jijiga, leads to confusion.
After reports of targeted attacks on innocent civilians, embassies such as that of the United Kingdom issued travel warnings and Djibouti evacuated its citizens from the area, the situation has calmed down. This occurred after a push deeper into the city by federal troops and the resignation of Abdi Mohamoud Omar as president of the regional state.
Debates over the constitutionality of the initial measure by the federal government to enter the city remain shrouded in conjecture though. Troubling signs of non-transparency, the lack of autonomy of the public media and the internet shutdown itself is staining the administration’s achievements.
This stands in stark contrast to the goodwill that has been shown to liberalise the media landscape. Banned media outlets have since been unblocked, and an opposition leader, Merara Gudina (PhD), has been appointed a member of the board of a state broadcaster. Likewise, the regressive habit of employing internet shutdowns had been thought abandoned after the assumption of office of Prime Minister Abiy.
Between 2015 and 2017, nationwide internet and social media shutdowns and disruptions targeting regions are estimated to have cost the nation almost 132 million dollars, according to the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East & Southern Africa, a research centre based in Uganda. This is in addition to losses the nation has been dealt when it comes to government accountability.
It also counteracts Abiy’s promise to citizens of a government that works for the benefit of the people and whose officials comply with the rule of law. Of course, few leaders promise the governed otherwise. The tricky part is staying open and transparent enough and instituting checks and balances so that the government can be trusted.
Information vacuums reduce trust in government and discourage accountability. It also allows narratives to fall prey to a wide variety of interest groups. The lack of reliable data in the couple of days that followed the incident in Jijiga perpetuated confusion and gave way to the reinterpretation of the events. Such misinformation and disinformation detrimentally impact the manner in which citizens make their political decisions.
The current administration needs to begin practising what it preaches, as well as continue with ongoing reforms to create a vibrant media landscape. This should start by ending the one-way communication that has been employed by the administration.
The prime minister should be able to appear before journalists and answer questions on important issues such as the incident in Jijiga, the rapprochement with Eritrea and the partial privatisation of state enterprises.
Continuing this one-way communication and the perception of bias by the public media creates the notion that the government is trying to avoid responsibility, hide its wrongs and avoid accountability.
Internet blackouts add to this unease. In a state that has weak institutions and has not built the necessary checks and balances, the public has only the free flow of information to rely on to make decisions and call for the accountability of its leaders.
There are no other means by which citizens can be assured that the government respects the rule of law, if they do not know what the government is doing or if the only sources of information are government officials. It has to be understood that when darkness prevails, facts, objectivity and reason falter, and democracy remains elusive.
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