June 18, 2021
To the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, H.E. Abiy Ahmed Ali:
|H.E. Demeke Mekonnen
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister
|Dr./ENG Abraham Belay
Minister of Ministry of Innovation and Technology
Dr. Shumete Gizaw
Dr. Gedion Timotios
Chairperson of National Electoral Board of Ethiopia
Engineer Balcha Raba
Director General of Ethiopia Media Authority
Nations across Africa, and the world, are intentionally shutting down the internet when people need it the most — during elections and important national events. This election, we urge the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to #KeepItOn.
We, the undersigned organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a network that unites over 240 organizations from 105 countries that work to end internet shutdowns globally — write to urgently appeal to you, the Prime Minister, to ensure that the internet, social media platforms, and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout the election period, scheduled for June 21, in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and thereafter.
Ethiopians have been disproportionately affected by at least 13 incidents of repeated Internet shutdowns1, with the ongoing shutdown in the Tigray region being recorded as the longest since you assumed office as Prime Minister in April 2018. Resultantly, Ethiopia remains on the #KeepItOn coalition’s radar, and the world is watching to ensure that the rights of the people are upheld during the upcoming elections and at all times.
The internet and social media platforms play a critical role in enhancing participatory governance in a democratic society. They provide space for communicating, public debate, seeking information on election processes and candidates, reporting and documenting events and outcomes, and holding governments accountable for their actions — including their promises to the people. Journalists, human rights defenders, election observers, civil society actors, and other relevant stakeholders count on the internet to monitor and report on elections, facilitating transparency, inclusiveness, and openness in the process.
Ethiopia’s history of shutdowns
Since 2016, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has shut down the internet and social media platforms during important national events, protests and conflicts at least 20 times according to data documented in Access Now’s Shutdown Optimization Project (STOP). Recent incidents include the month-long total internet shutdown following the assassination of artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in June 2020, and more recently, disrupting both broadband and mobile internet in Tigray Region of Ethiopia following the conflict between Federal force and Tigray Regional government. Since your administration came to power, there have been at least 13 incidents of internet shutdowns in Ethiopia lasting for several weeks, with devastating human and economic impacts on the people of Ethiopia. The #KeepItOn coalition and local CSOs based in Ethiopia appeal to you as Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to ensure that access to the internet and all digital communication platforms remain open and secure before, during, and after the 2021 elections.
Elections are an important moment for citizens to elect their leaders, and it is essential for the government to adopt measures to ensure that the electoral process is free, inclusive, and fair. Internet shutdowns could spur a sense of insecurity, particularly among more vulnerable groups and may instigate violence, and spur the spread of misinformation, as there are fewer reliable channels for fact-checking.
Internet shutdowns harm human rights, disrupt emergency services, and cripple economies
Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutting down the internet during a deadly pandemic would add fuel to the fire. Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and opinion, access to information, press freedom, and freedom of peaceful assembly. By disrupting the free flow of information, shutdowns exacerbate existing tensions, and create space to conceal potential violence and human rights violations perpetrated by both state and non-state actors.
Internet shutdowns cut off access to vital, timely, and life-saving information, as well as to emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear and confusion.
Internet shutdowns contravene international human rights laws and standards
The Government of Ethiopia has ratified regional and international frameworks such as the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which provide for the protection and promotion of the rights of freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and access to information, both offline and online.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Resolution from 2016 recognizes the “importance of the internet in advancing human and people’s rights in Africa, particularly the right to freedom of information and expression.” The ACHPR/Res. 362 (LIX) 2016 also condemns the “emerging practice of State Parties interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the internet, social media, and messaging services.” Additionally, UN experts and high-level officials — including the UN Secretary-General — formally affirm that “blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.”
Telecom companies must respect human rights
Telecom companies and businesses have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to respect human rights, prevent or mitigate potential harms, and provide remedy for harms they cause or contribute to. It outlines, “states should take additional steps to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that are owned or controlled by the State.”
Furthermore, the only telecom service provider operating in Ethiopia, Ethio telecom, has a responsibility to uphold and respect human rights by providing quality, open, and secure access to the internet and digital communication tools throughout the elections and beyond. Internet shutdowns — whether in Ethiopia or other countries — must never be allowed to become the new normal, and we encourage Ethiopia enterprises to integrate these practices for responding to censorship and network disruption.
As organizations that believe in the power of the internet as an enabler of all other human rights, we are confident that access to the internet, social media, and mobile money platforms during the elections in Ethiopia has the potential to foster transparency and inclusivity in the upcoming elections, and ensure active citizen and other stakeholder participation.
We respectfully request that you use the important positions of your offices to:
- Immediately reinstate full internet access in Tigray and all areas currently targeted by internet shutdowns;
- Refrain from arbitrarily blocking access to social media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook, and publicly assure the people of Ethiopia that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, will remain open, accessible, inclusive, and secure across Ethiopia throughout the election and thereafter;
- Order internet service provider Ethio telecom to provide everyone with high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access throughout the election period and thereafter; and
- Order internet service provider Ethio telecom to inform internet users of any potential disruptions, and to take all reasonable steps to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact the quality of service they receive.
Kindly let us know in what ways we can assist.
Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)
Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)
African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition
ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa
Bareedo Platform Somalia
Bloggers Association of Kenya
Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)
Committee to Protect Journalists
Digital Rights Coalition -Malawi
Digital Rights Kashmir
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCo)
Ethiopian Human Rights Defender Center
Gambia Press Union (GPU)
Internet Society Ethiopia Chapter
Kijiji Yeetu, Kenya
Lawyers for Human Rights, LHR
Mersa Media Institute
MoreThanPeace, South Africa
Network for Digital Rights in Ethiopia (NDRE)
Organization of the Justice Campaign
Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Right2Know Campaign (R2K)
Securing Organizations through Automated Policymaking (SOAP)
The Tor Project
The Peace Centre, South Africa
VE sin Filtro
Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda
Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG)
Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
1 An internet shutdown is defined as an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information. See more at: https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton.