Mobile internet restoration means one less obstacle for journalists
(GONDAR, ETHIOPIA)—Ethiopians are “rejoicing” (according to one report) after mobile internet service was restored last Friday. This is especially true for Ethiopian journalists, who feel that at least some of their chains have been removed.
Mobile service had been available the last five months only in Addis Ababa, the capital. Elsewhere, Ethiopia’s 57.4 million mobile subscribers could not access the internet through their phone carrier, but could only get online using WiFi.
The Ethiopian government has not officially explained the reasons for the blackout or for restoration of mobile internet service, according to several reports.However, given the recent political turmoil and ongoing instability, including deadly protests in the country, it’s clear that the government shut off mobile internet to stifle dissent and impede journalists.
Asmamaw Addis, a lecturer of journalism and communications at the University of Gondar (UoG), believes that the mobile internet shutdown was consistent with ruling party policy that seeks to silence dissenting voices, especially those whose comments might grab international attention. He said, “The internet is key ingredient human rights – a means citizens have to express their opinion - and shutting off mobile internet is violation of this right. Therefore, disclosing the shutting off the internet officially mean losing (the government’s) acceptability internationally.”
The recent mobile internet shutdown was not an isolated incident. The only internet service provider in Ethiopia is state-run Ethio Telecom, meaning that the government can literally flip a switch and cut off mobile internet service, or even pull the plug on the internet entirely, which is exactly what happened three times in 2017. (AfricaPortal)
So egregious are these threats to internet freedom that a 2016 Freedom House report rated Ethiopia as the fourth worst country for internet freedom, trailing only China, Syria, and Iran.
According to Prof. Addis, these internet shutdowns “harm freedom of expression. Citizens fear to exercise their basic rights.” The shutdowns are symptomatic of the government’s heavy hand in dealing with the press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia jailed five journalists in late March as part of a state of emergency crackdown. (CPJ.org) International media NGO’s Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) both list Ethiopian media as not free. In fact, RSF rated Ethiopia 150 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. (RSF.org)
Considered in the context of an ongoing war against free media, the internet disruptions contribute to an environment in Ethiopia where it is difficult for journalists to do their job. UoG’s Addis said, “No doubt, (the shutdown) negatively affects the job of journalists. Media in Ethiopia is not well staffed. They highly use online sources as they don’t have many branch offices in all the districts and in all regions that provide media coverage proportionally. So, the internet is a key to gathering news stories from across the country as well as to distributing news and information…Now that (mobile internet) is restored it facilitates the performance of journalists’ jobs.”
Ethiopia is not alone. Recent internet shutdowns have also plagued Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon, where I will be working on a peace journalism project this summer. In 2016, the #KeepItOn campaign (designed to battle internet shutdowns) documented 56 shutdowns worldwide, including in six African nations.
When journalists are not free to use the internet, it makes it much more difficult for them to do their jobs. When governments restrict and block the internet, it not only impedes journalists, it intimidates them. And when these threats to internet freedom occur in a context where the press is not free, it makes the practice of responsible journalism (let alone peace journalism) problematic.
Friday’s restoration of mobile internet is a good initial step, although much more work needs to be done before Ethiopia's press can be considered free.
RELATED NEWS: U.S. House approves resolution critical of Ethiopia’s human right record. http://www.africanews.com/2018/04/10/us-congress-slaps-ethiopian-govt-with-h-res-128-activists-celebrate/