July 29, 2020

Reflecting on the recent internet shutdown as Ethiopia sees signs of ethnic cleansing


While the internet lock down was similar to the Togolese experience in 2017, the patterns in…

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Reflecting on the recent internet shutdown as Ethiopia sees signs of ethnic cleansing
[EDITORIAL] Like many businesses and institutions that suffered grave amounts of loss and had to cease activities amid the internet lockdown that lasted nearly a month until being fully restored, Addis Zeybe was avidly affected by the shutdown. Work was halted and the normally actively hectic newsroom was quiet and slow. But more than organizational inconveniences and serious losses incurred during the internet lockdown, the primary justification for supporting or standing against the recent crackdown on the internet must be based on legal and political analysis. Roughly a month ago, a prominent  symbol in the Oromo protest and popstar Hachalu Hunddessa was gunned down near his home around Gelan Condominium. The singer's death sparked anger amongst the public while the government later revealed alleged attempts by opposition leaders to instigate violence and assassinate government leaders. With Amnesty international reporting 177 dead and over 5000 arrested, the past month was challenging for all parties involved. The internet was fully closed on the morning of June 30, 2020 - a day after the assassination of the popstar - until being partially restored two weeks later. It took another week for mobile data to be restored and for the internet ban to be lifted. Even though ironically one of the first decisions taken by Dr. Abiy Ahmed was to lift the state of emergency that at the time had restricted online freedom and media space, the narrative of shutting down the internet has continued during his administration as well. During his regime, internet shutdowns have been used in different parts of Ethiopia (mostly in Oromia region) usually justifying such actions as key in keeping peace and security.While a number of human rights institutions including Article19, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released statements calling on the Ethiopian government to restore internet in Ethiopia, Addis Zeybe has chosen to discuss the call by Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) for its continental value and contextual relevance. In an article titled “Good News, Bad News: A Story of Internet Shutdowns in Togo And Ethiopia ''. CIPESA discusses decisions made in ECOWAS and Zimbabwe vis a vis the case of Ethiopia. In the article, CIPESA recalls the decision made by ECOWAS’s Community Court of Justice which ruled that the 2017 decision by the Togolese authorities was illegal and in violation of human rights principles. The shutdown at the time was as a result of public protest demanding the aged leadership to resign. Another decision recalled by CIPESA was the decision by the Zimbabwe Supreme Court declaring the decision by the authorities the same month to shut down the internet amid protests following increase in fuel prices as illegal too. CIPESA talks of similarity between the Togolese case and the Ethiopian one. Addis Zeybe agrees with almost all of the notions put forth by CIPESA. As a digital media platform working to produce accurate and independent news in Ethiopia, freedom of the internet platform is not a luxury, it is a necessity. More than that it is the right of all Ethiopians to access the internet as guaranteed by regional and international instruments to which the East African nation is a party to. However, like most human rights reports and calls for action the call by CIPESA and other institutions also lacks the ability to appreciate the contextual realities of the events that followed the assassination of Hachalu Hunddessa. As such, Addis Zeybe as an agent on the field in Addis Ababa will venture to show the contextual realities of the events that led to the shutdown in three brief sections below. 

While the internet lock down was similar to the Togolese experience in 2017, the patterns in attacks was strikingly similar to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

From personal experiences and atrocities suffered by family members, friends and fellow citizens living in Addis Ababa, the above statement can be confirmed as a reality. Like the Hutu ethnic group targeted members of the Tutsi tribe in the act of genocide that claimed the lives of 500,000–1,074,016 members of the Tutsi and Twa tribes as well as moderate Hutus, in different parts of Ethiopia people were targeted for their ethnic identity. The Amhara ethnic group and the Gurage ethnic group were identified and targeted in different parts of Oromia. It can be reacalled that prior to the attacks in the Oromia region the Amhara - the second largest ethnic group in the country - was identified as the group behind the killing of the singer by different oppostion leaders, the media and some members of the Oromo ethnic group in the absence of any evidence supporting the claim.  Minority Rights Group echoed the above concerns in a statement made on July 22, 2020 through its website listed a number of reasons for its concern over ethnic based targeting and violence. The MRG called the violence following the death of Hachalu Hundessa as one that showed hallmark signs of ethnic cleansing. The justifications forwarded by MRG include the premeditated nature of the attacks, the lack of protection afforded by the Federal and Regional Police during such attacks, the incitement campaigns of different “media networks (which showcases irresponsible use of space by such institutions) and the hate driven nature of the killings. Even though the MRG has not supported the decision to shut down the internet in Ethiopia, it has called for organizations such as facebook and twitter to alert posts inciting violence and to remove such posts immediately. With the lack of oversight over such organizations compounded by the lack of will and commitment observed in the policies of social media companies, it is Addis Zeybe’s strong observation that it is not likely that such actions will be followed up by Facebook and Twitter.The statement from the MRG is well founded. Personal and eyewitness accounts can confirm the systematic killing of Ethiopian citizens based on their ethnic identities. Hundreds lost their lives and thousands have been uprooted from areas where they were living in for generations. Opposition party leaders, media networks and “activists” also used ethnically degrading terms and unfounded allegations to spark ethnic violence in Addis Ababa and other cities in the Oromia region. The internet was a strong tool in spreading such inciting information. Therefore, even though it does not fully justify the internet lockdown, it was also not the same as the ones before. And compared to the increment in killings, bodily harm and destruction of property that would have ensued had there been internet access, the ban can be contextually understood. With the lack of oversight on social media institutions there is no guarantee that the violence would have increased. To conclude even though we have seen social media advocacy topple autocratic regimes in different contexts, we have also seen it being used by groups to target certain groups. While the Arab uprising is a demonstration of the immense importance of citizen advocacy and the potential of social media outlets, the story of the Rohingya muslims and how social media was used to identify and target them for attack is also the other face of the coin. Therefore, even though the government should break the narrative of shutting down the internet whenever internal protests take place, it is also important to understand the context of current internet shutdowns and their unconfirmed but highly likely relevance of the shutdown to curbing the number of innocent people attacked during the scary intercommunal clashes. 

The Right to internet is not an absolute right

The second point that must be understood is the legal basis of the internet lockdown. Granted, there are procedural requirements that were not fulfilled but from a human rights perspective, the internet lockdown is not one that is necessarily illegal. Even though the narrative that the internet is a luxury is not correct, it is also not true that such a right is absolute. Like many human rights provisions states can and should at times legally limit such rights whenever the proper requirements for derogation are met. These requirements are outlined in international and regional human rights instruments as well as the national constitution of Ethiopia. So has the internet ban failed to meet the said requirements for derogation? That requires an analysis of the circumstances leading to the ban and the legislative requirements for derogating such rights. The right to the internet is a key development in the human rights regime. The right to the internet is a strong tool in forwarding the cause of freedom of expression, speech and opinion as well as bearing strong links to other civic and political rights. It is also very important to the realization of socio-economic and cultural rights. Therefore, freedom to connect is a strong indicator of human rights commitments of nations as well as forming part of the glossary of rights guaranteed by national, regional and international human rights instruments to which Ethiopia is a part of. Therefore, the constant tendency to crack down on internet space is once again a strong indicator of the lack of freedom of internet in Ethiopia. The statement by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister in response to questions around the lockdown imposed earlier in 2020 is also indicative of the poor understanding of freedom of internet in the current administration. At the time the Prime Minister had said “the internet is neither air nor water” as he famously also stated that if online incitement of violence persists the internet could be closed permanently late alone for a week. This tendency to understand the internet as a tool of development rather than a right in itself is an area of improvement for Abiy Ahmed’s administration. It is important to give the internet and the rights of citizens associated with it the proper consideration as it forms a key part of Ethiopia’s regional and international human rights obligations. As for the legality of the most recent internet ban that was ordered on June 30, 2020, as noted above it comes down to an analysis of the circumstances that warranted the ban vis a vis the requirements necessary to meet before derogating the internet right of people which will affect the fundamental rights and freedoms of expression, opinion and assembly (among many more others). The Ethiopian constitution does not expressly guarantee the right to the internet. However, it does guarantee freedoms of expression, opinion, thought and assembly which are closely linked with the right to internet. The above rights were also strongly affected in the recent internet ban as well as the ones before. Article 29 guarantees the right of thought, opinion and expression in the Ethiopian constitution. Sub article 6 of the article lays down important requirements prior to limiting such rights. The sub article reads as follows:

These rights can be limited only through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honour and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity shall be prohibited by law. 

          Article 29(3) of the FDRE Constitution, 1995

As one can see the provision outlines procedural as well as substantial requirements. The procedural requirement is the necessity of a legislation to limit such rights and the substantial one relates to the limitation being made as to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honour and reputation of individuals. Propaganda of war and incitement are not listed as grounds of legal limitation of the rights guaranteed under Article 29, however are prohibited by law. So any crackdown on internet space must be put to test under this provision. Procedurally speaking, it is not legal. Because there was no legislation put in place before the internet lockdown was imposed. Neither was there any attempt to secure such a legislation in the two weeks that the nation was offline and detached from the rest of the world. While the sudden escalation of the situation could have prompted the government to quickly shut down the internet before the situation escalated, it is also unconstitutional to take down the internet as without any legislation put in place. This procedural requirement was put in place partly also in the interest of the system of check and balance and without it - as demonstrated by the recurrent internet bans put in place with relative ease for Abiy’s executive branch - the executive will limit rights as it wishes without the supervision of the legislative and judiciary branches of the government. Substantively speaking, asking whether the activities leading to the internet ban is one that is not hard to answer. As the section of the ethnic cleansing like attacks clearly shows not only did the events threaten the wellbeing of the youth, it also threatened the lives and safety of many Ethiopians. This coupled with the country’s limited resources to keep peace and stability could be used to legally derogate the right to the internet without violating any civic and political rights. It must be understood here that Addis Zeybe does not condone the internet ban. It merely sympathises with it because of its strong grasp of reality and commitment to peace and security in Ethiopia as well as the well being of its citizens. 

Shutdowns open doors to further human rights abuses

Another important point Addis Zeybe would like to note is the danger of the tendency by Prime Minister Abiy’s administration to revert to the old ways of shutting down the internet whenever threats to peace and security arise. This culture - which is usually seen in nations with questionable human rights records - is an everstrong challenge to the realization of fundamental human rights principles to which Abiy’s administration has repeatedly vowed allegiance to. While the nation currently is faced with ethnic tensions in more than three major regions between a variety of ethnic groups, the government must work on making its institutions stronger so as to contain threats of misinformation and incitement that could lead to the disruption of peace and security. It must be able to do so without shutting down the internet on a regular basis. In addition to recurrent disruption of internet connectivity contributing negatively to Ethiopia’s human rights records however, what is even more threatening is the onerous power bans given to governments to commit further human rights abuses without supervision from the rest of the world. The internet, as a tool of paramount significance in recording human rights violations, is an avid ally of the human rights architecture and institutions working for its realization. As such crackdowns on such spaces disrupt the work of human rights institutions, international organizations, human rights activists and other stakeholders. Important strides towards creating a conducive environment for human rights principles have been taken by Abiy’s administration in the past. Reforms to the oppressive post 2005 legislations, the release from prison and return from exile of political prisoners and other initiatives show the increased commitment of the current administration to the realization of the East African nation’s human rights obligations. However, the tendency to crackdown on internet space is a continuing area of improvement for the Ethiopian authorities. This is because, even though the events of the current ban make the shutdown contextually understandable, the norm of cracking down on internet space can never be justified by a nation that truly inspires to improve its human rights track record.  

The Internet Shutdown and coronavirus information pathways

One area of observation that has to finally be made is the strong link between the internet and the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. If the riots had increased the likelihood of the virus spreading, the internet shutdown only compounded it. This is because the nature of the virus requires constant attention. And for most Ethiopians - especially those in urban settings - one of the key outlets for the flow of covid19 information are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly Telegram channels are key platforms for Ethiopian citizens to follow updates surrounding the novel pandemic, measures being taken to prevent its spread in the community and other important information about the virus. This was strongly disrupted. A good indication for this is can be a visit to the Twitter page of the Ministry of Health which will show no information posted between the dates June 29 (which was the death of Hachalu Hundessa) and July 21, 2020. This is a huge gap which could have unquantifiable effects on the efforts of the country to combat the coronavirus pandemic as well as the global effort to do the same. Similar gaps reflecting the dates of the internet ban can be seen across our social media platforms and other key platforms playing a huge role in the fight against the pandemic. As accurate and timely information is one of the determinants for a country’s ability to combat the virus effectively or not. This can be evidenced by the link between misinformation and spikes in rates of infection apparent in South American countries. South America is now the most infected continent on the planet. So it is Addis Zeybe’s strong opinion that the government should have considered the effect of the internet ban on the flow of information before putting in place the internet ban. Even if it was not possible to do so because of the sudden escalation of the situation at the time, the government should have remedied the gap caused by the internet crackdown with more coverage on its mass media. To the contrary however, most of the content on the mass media was on the death of the popstar and the political unrest in the country with minimal if any coverage given for the pandemic. This contributes to laxed attitudes amongst Ethiopian citizens which is already a problem when analyzing Ethiopia’s bid to contain the unrelenting covid19 epidemic. 

Final Remarks and Recommendations

As an institution that aims to contribute towards the production of free and independent news in the Ethiopian media landscape, Addis Zeybe does not condone the internet ban out in place following the death of Hachalu Hundessa. However, it also considered the events of the period that warranted the internet ban before passing any judgement. Addis Zyebe strongly stands against any tendency by the government to encourage the norm of cracking down on freedom of the internet whenever internal instability occurs. As a strong determinant in gauging respect for human rights it is not in the interest of Abiy’s administration to persistently follow this path. It is also not legal. So serious inventory must be done by the government in order to change its ways and policies on how and when internet ban must be put in place - that is if it should even be put in place in the first place. Clear directives on how this should be done in the future within the legal boundaries must be made in order to guarantee the freedom to connect in Ethiopia.However, it also appreciates the reality of the current political landscape of the nation which is riddled with ethnic tensions. This is further compounded by the poor records of social media responsibility observed amongst a significant portion of Ethiopia’s online community. While Addis Zeybe considers regional and international human rights initiatives as allies in its effort to promote civic space, it also strongly believes that in the absence of supervision of social media outlets and low media literacy rates as well as a culture of hate speech among Ethiopian internet users internet bans can be legally justified as measures to mitigate the strong ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. Therefore, collaborations with local partners is important in order to understand the context of the country prior to making judgements.Addis Zeybe also echoes the call by the Minority Group Rights to social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to give due attention to the current Ethiopian political landscape and adopt policies related to hate speech posts made on their platform. It is imperative that such institutions take accountability and work on the matter in order to avoid similar outcomes to the Burmese case. It is neither in the interest of the image of such institutions nor in line with the legal obligations of such companies to not work on the matter. These platforms must invest on fact checking initiatives, media literacy and social media responsibility in order to guarantee their platforms are not used by ill motivated persons to instigate violence and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia.Finally, Ethiopians in and out of the country must understand that the culture of social media use in Ethiopia contributes strongly towards the recurrent internet bans imposed by the government. This is not to mean all instances are justified. However, the poor records of media literacy and social media responsibility associated with Ethiopian internet users must be corrected as rights are meant to be enjoyed by citizens, not abused. One person's right to freedom of expression does not disregard the right to life of his fellow citizen. Hate speeches, ethnic messages of violence and inciting materials cannot and should not be given a platform in the name of internet freedom and connectivity rights.  As long as the public persists in putting such content on social media platforms, the government will always find a ground to crack down on its citizens right to internet freedom. In addition to that, however, we as Ethiopians must work on our online behaviours in order to guarantee peace and security as well as development of the country.