Ethiopia: Phony issues on the net

Hindessa Abdul

What do AlJazeera, BBC, Le Monde,The Atlantic, African Review, PC Mag,Tech Crunch have in common? Well, they were among the scores of media outlets that reported on the ban of internet telephony in Ethiopia.

The Parliament passed the Telecom Infringements Law on May 24, 2012. The bill got scant coverage on the local media. That may be because of the insignificance of the legislation to the community at large. After all, the number of internet users in the country are not that many. In 2011 International Telecommunication Union(ITU) put the internet penetration rate in Ethiopia at 0.7%.

What is in the law?

The law has two important features: first, people will be held responsible for their online postings; second, it makes using the computer to make telephone calls illegal, this particularly targets the popular Internet telephone service: Skype.

Truth be told, both are not new. The anti – terrorism law and the designation of all major opposition parties as terrorists by Ethiopian parliament had already a bearing on online postings. Eskinder Nega has been in jail for about a year now for his online articles.

The second one is a little bit tricky. While most media cite the reason for it is to “protect the profits” of Ethio Telecom, that doesn’t seem to completely hold water.

Making calls over the internet has always been illegal. Those who render the service do it at their own risk. As the government is stepping up its control almost in every sector, the one thing they couldn’t do anything about was an internet telephone call through Skype. “Skype can’t be listened to so easily and can’t be controlled,” former BBC correspondent in Addis Elizabeth Blunt told the British broadcaster when asked about the ban. Skype’s secure nature coupled with the ease of use made it one of the most important internet communication tools with over 600 million users worldwide.


Many were quick in condemning the move. The Atlantic commented: “Criminalizing a popular Internet service isn’t likely to do much to make Ethiopia more wired, nor will it likely attract many of the foreign investors.”

Endalk is a blogger who happens to be a journalism faculty lecturer. In his blog concerning this issue he explains: “If one facebooker posted a status update on this page regarding his allegiance say for example peaceful Muslim protesters and his status update attracts a string of comments, this facebook user will be directly liable for dissemination offending information. These infringement risks up to 8 years imprisonment and heavy fines.”
Among the tweets AlJazeera compiled, one reads: “As far as media is concerned, Ethiopia is a nation in the stone age period, held hostage by dictatorship…” Another one adds: “Ethiopia i/net cafe Skype ban loosely enforced when I moved 6 years ago b/c ate into govt telcoms cashcow. Maybe this same idea?(sic)”
Is it about the scammers?
There is no sufficient data to support how much the nation’s telecom is loosing to those who make international telephone calls through Skype. It is possible it might loose some amount from a business it was not supposed to engage in the first place. However, the government didn’t do anything when they caught the big fish sometimes back.
In 2002 dozens of people were arrested over diversion of international telephone calls for personal gain. The organized scam was aided by a few of the then ETC staff and some individuals outside of the country. When Federal Police investigated, they found out that there was almost a parallel telecom business that completely dried out the incomes of the sate owned company from international calls. The media who quoted Police reported the scam robbed the national monopoly around ETB 1 bln. (at the time’s exchange rate $120 mln.). But when the suspects finally got apprehended, they were found to be top ruling party operatives connected to the inner circles of Ethiopian leaders. Prosecutors quickly dropped the charges and the culprits quietly left the country.
Or something else…?
Ethiopia has been filtering websites for about seven years now. The filtering didn’t get enough international media attention because the users are so negligible. For all the hullabaloo about the ICT development, the country has the lowest internet penetration in Africa just behind Sierra Leone. Most hook up to the internet just to log in to Facebook. A local blogger David Kirba recently wrote: “There are more Facebook users in Ethiopia than internet users.” Irony? Well, at least that shows where the trend in internet usage is.

The government has been relentless in its effort to disrupt online communications when it has no control over the content. Text messaging was banned for two years before it was resumed in 2007; internet cafes have to keep logs of users; most website run by the Diaspora are blocked, a political satirist popularly known as Abe Tokichaw launches a new blog each time the government blocks him; telephone conversations are routinely eavesdropped; foreign based radio and TV stations considered to be critical of the government are jammed. No pretenses anymore either. “VOA is not welcome to broadcast in Ethiopia,” the Prime Minister declared in 2010.

As such, the new law is intended to curb the rights of citizens to freely communicate without the government’s watch. A number of laws and directives with the same intention have tremendously narrowed the citizen’s right of expression. The latest law is yet another step in that direction.