Internet Blackouts: A Gross Disservice to Democracy

Judging by the recent repeated restrictions in the use of social media and the Internet in general across the country, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that Ethiopia has joined those nations that suffer blanket communications shutdowns. In a pattern seen across several developing countries, the Revolutionary Democrats prove time and again that during times of social upheaval and unrest, shutting down social media and the Internet as a whole is their way of bringing law and order in an otherwise destabilised nation.

Such moves by the government are grave violations of the fundamental democratic rights of its citizens to express their views and also to form associations on social media platforms. The total and partial blackout of Internet services in the country also has had a drastic impact on the country’s economy and tarnishes its reputation, which the EPRDFites would have one believe is pivoting a leadership position on regional and international diplomatic stages. Moreover, the government’s attempts to silence dissent online has proved ineffective after months and years of social media activism, which is actually thriving in the country, with more and more people engaged in both useful and unconstructive online discourse. As the technology to stifle the Internet develops, so too does the technology to overcome the barriers and provide access.

In the past six months alone, the government has been accused of several instances of a blanket shutdown of the Internet and partial blockage of social media platforms.

“We [EPRDFites] wanted to help students concentrate on the country’s higher education entrance exam,” noted the government’s spokesperson in response to why social media applications were blocked a few months ago. Here, the government clearly admitted tampering with people’s rights to freely access information and share their opinion using the Internet.

Though the government has not admitted blocking Internet services in the country during the climax of recent unrests in Gondar and some parts of the Oromia region, public data shows that Internet traffic originating from Ethiopia suddenly stopping during planned or ongoing protests, highly suggesting the state, which is the sole telecoms provider, most likely had a hand in shutting down Internet communications.

The EPRDFites’ policy towards controlling information in the cyber world, infamous for its pervasiveness on digital surveillance and censorship, results in premature moves to block all Internet access as a first course of crisis management. Globally, there is an increasing trend where governments take the extraordinary measure to disrupt communications among a protesting public. There were some 20 documented Internet shutdowns in the past six months worldwide. Such acts are usually, if not always, justified by inflammatory speeches, which are bent on inciting violence, propagated across various digital platforms. This puts the nation in clear and present danger, requiring them to take extreme measures.

In Ethiopia’s constitution, the conditions under which rights of thought, opinion and expression can be curtailed are “in order to protect the well-being of the youth and the honour and reputation of individuals.” Additionally, such rights are prohibited by law if they are deemed “propaganda for war, as well as the public expression of opinion is intended to injure human dignity”. The details were said to be listed out by laws.

Still, the government’s complete shutdown of the Internet, or partial blockage of social media platforms on at least two occasions, fall far from constituting the two constitutional exceptions, which in principle have to be interpreted in an economised manner.

Ethiopia’s Computer Crimes Proclamation aims “to incorporate new legal mechanisms and procedures in order to prevent, control, investigate and prosecute computer crimes and facilitate the collection of electronic evidences”. The proclamation, however, does not include any article that outlines a legal procedure for cutting Internet access completely or partially.

Further, the lack of clear procedure by which the executive portion of the government went about closing down the Internet raises serious transparency and accountability issues.

The information super highway is one major infrastructure citizens depend on to gather information. It is the responsibility of the state to provide the infrastructure as part of a public good. However, as robbery may occur on highways by individuals or groups using or abusing the infrastructure, policing such acts should be the duty of the state. But blanket denial of public goods in the name of deterring a few culprits should be criticised. We would not expect the state to shut down a physical highway exiting from Addis Abeba simply because there had been a single incident of highway robbery.

Though only 9.5pc of people living in the world’s least developed countries have access to the Internet, almost all of the blackouts in Internet access are targeted against these people. In Africa, for instance, where the number of Smartphone users has doubled over the past two years and where mobile broadband connections are expected to triple in the coming four years, at least four countries have been accused of a total shutdown of the Internet in recent months. The restrictions come amidst increasing recommendations by several studies that a 10pc growth in Internet penetration in low or middle income countries will catalyse as much as two percent economic growth.

In Ethiopia too, where some estimates put the Internet penetration in the country as low as 3.7pc last year, the government has used its dominant role as a telecoms provider, relying on its sophisticated cache of software, to virtually control and carry out surveillance of digital content. This violently infringes the democratic rights of citizens.

Citizen’s rights to gather information from wherever they want, hold their respective views on such basis and express it freely with no fear of retribution has been a liberal conviction that Ethiopia’s constitution has wholly subscribed to in its article 29. However, increasing blockages of the Internet, which is the quintessential platform to access information, express a viewpoint or associate with likeminded individuals worldwide, gravely erodes such rights.

Moreover, Ethiopia’s repeated Internet blackouts set a dangerous precedence where people will increasingly experience an ever decreasing space to vent their frustrations and disappointments against the government. While the digital divide in Ethiopia’s population of close to a hundred million is quite visible, with so many still lacking Internet access, in the portion of the society that does have Internet access, social media plays an important role in sharing information and expressing views. Notwithstanding issues of unconstructive conversations, there are some legitimate views and opinions expressed on such platforms. Blocking the access of such voices to the Internet will only lead to violent eruptions of public demonstration.

Different professions and businesses will also continue to suffer from these blanket Internet shutdowns. From businesses that rely on real-time communications with customers and trading partners, to professions, such as journalism, where the full and timely flow of information is the very essence of its core business, restricting the Internet is counter-productive.

In addition to enshrining the rights of free thought, opinion and expression in its constitution, Ethiopia is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which clearly honour those rights. It is about time the EPRDFites respect their own principles by, as a recent UN’s Human Rights Council resolution put it, protecting and promoting human rights on the Internet – where the same rights people have off line are protected and respected online. The government should refrain from prematurely taking measures that should only be considered as a last resort.

Published on Aug 30,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 852]



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