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Open letter to the Ethiopian Government: urgently end ongoing internet shutdowns in all regions across the country

To: The Office of the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of  Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

CC:  Minister of Technology and Innovation; FDRE Government Communication Service;  National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS); Information Network Security Administration (INSA); Ethio Telecom; Safaricom Ethiopia; and Ethiopian Communications Authority.

Nations across Africa, and the world, must ensure people can access open, secure and free internet when they need it the most — even in times of national crises. Ethiopia must restore access to the internet and all digital communications platforms.

Your Excellency the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.)

We, the undersigned organizations, and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 human rights organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — write to urgently appeal to you and all relevant authorities to take the necessary steps in ensuring that the people of Ethiopia have unfettered access to the internet and digital communications platforms at all times. We ring serious warning bells about the ongoing weaponization of internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, particularly in the regions of Tigray and Amhara. Open, secure, reliable, and accessible internet is vital to exercising and protecting human rights, as well as ensuring safety during crises and conflicts.

Ethiopia and prolific internet shutdowns

Against a backdrop of periodic internet shutdowns across Ethiopia, during the week of April 3, 2023, authorities blocked access to mobile internet as violent  protests erupted in several parts of the Amhara region against the federal government’s decision to disintegrate regional special forces. According to reports, mobile data remains restricted across major cities in the region while broadband connection is functional.

The April mobile internet shutdown adds on to the growing list of ongoing nationwide social media blackouts, the over two-year long complete internet shutdown in the Tigray region and unverified reports of sporadic internet shutdowns in  Oromia.  On February 9, 2023, the government of Ethiopia shutdown access to social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok, and Telegram in response to rising tension between the federal government and leadership of the  Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

People in Tigray are still languishing through an internet shutdown that cut off over six million people during the bloody civil war. Authorities are yet to restore full internet access across the region since  it was disconnected on November 4, 2020.  As the peace agreement between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reached in November 2022 starts to take hold, we acknowledge the public statements of commitment and steps to bring connectivity back to the region, but for most part, the shutdown continues. 

The #KeepItOn coalition, through the Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project, has recorded 24 shutdowns to date in Ethiopia since 2016. At least eight of these shutdowns occurred in the midst of political instability and conflict, and another eight occurred during protests. These shutdowns range from social media blocks to full blackouts across mobile and broadband networks, affecting certain regions or the entire country. Year after year, this harmful pattern has continued. This momentum must be stopped by reversing course on the three active shutdowns in 2023 and urgently restoring the internet to all people.

Internet shutdowns harm human rights and endanger lives

Shutting down the internet in times of conflict and crises is an affront to fundamental human rights as they roadblock people’s ability to access critical information, further endangering lives. Internet shutdowns make it extremely difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to closely monitor crises thereby enabling those in power to evade accountability for human rights abuses , leaving people in crises further isolated. Disruptions to internet access contribute to the erosion of press freedom in Ethiopia, making an environment already characterized by frequent  arbitrary arrests of journalists even more hostile.  

As has been the experience across the world in other conflict zones, the internet shutdowns in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia have provided cover for the numerous reports of heinous crimes perpetrated against people at the height of the conflict, while  exacerbating the delivery of humanitarian aid.  

The internet, social media platforms, and other telecommunication services  play a critical role in times of social and political unrest, crises, and conflict. These tools enable communication, public debate, access to information, documentation of events, and identification of safe havens. The ongoing internet shutdowns in Ethiopia make it increasingly challenging for people to live their day-to-day lives.

Internet shutdowns violate national and international human rights laws

The arbitrary use of shutdowns in Ethiopia contravenes the constitutionally founded “right of thought, opinion and expression” in Article 29 of Ethiopia’s constitution. They are  a violation of  Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on freedom of opinion and expression, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) on access to information and the freedom of expression. They are in direct contrast to the African Commission’s (The Commission’s) Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet which — among other issues — calls on member states to “respect and take legislative and other measures to guarantee, respect and protect [a] citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services.” Ethiopia is a signatory to all of these  frameworks 

International institutions, governments, experts, and high-level officials — including from the UN and the human rights sector — have repeatedly  declared internet shutdowns are unacceptable under international human rights law and affirmed that digital rights violations enable and escalate violence during crises.  A 2022 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted the impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and access to information, and the negative effects they have on economic activities, social welfare, and humanitarian aid delivery. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, through the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, has also expressed concern at the increasing weaponization of internet shutdowns in the region. The 2022 Internet Governance Forum,  hosted by the government of Ethiopia, stated in its outcome report that “Access to the Internet provides a crucial opportunity for access to information and expression. Governments should avoid recourse to internet shutdowns because of their negative impact on both human rights and economic welfare. Social media and technology companies should support citizens in their advocacy efforts concerning shutdowns.”

While the undersigned organizations recognize that the rights and freedoms to opinion and expression are not absolute, limitations to human rights must follow the principles of limitation which are outlined in the ICCPR as having to satisfy proportionality and necessity. The UN Human Rights Committee also shares this opinion adding that a limitation must not be seen to put the right itself in jeopardy and must be founded in legality. 

The #KeepItOn coalition, together with the undersigned organizations, unequivocally condemns the internet shutdowns in Ethiopia and calls on the government to act in accordance with its international human rights obligations and reinstate access to social media platforms throughout the country and restore internet access in Amhara, Tigray, Oromia and all other affected regions.

ORGANIZATIONS


Access Now

Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)

Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) AfricTivistes

Africa Media and Information Technology Initiative (AfriMITI)

Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation

ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa

Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia  

Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE)

Bloggers of Zambia

Blueprint for Free Speech

Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD Ethiopia)

Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP-Liberia )

Centre for Multilateral Affairs (CfMA), Uganda

Change Tanzania Movement 

Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)

Committee to Protect Journalists

Common Cause Zambia 

Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations (CEHRO)

Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center (EHRDC)

Gambia Press Union (GPU)

Give1Project Gambia

Haki na Sheria Initiative 

Human Constanta

International Press Centre (IPC)

International Press Institute 

Internet Society Ethiopia Chapter  

Internet Society Benin Chapter

Igbanet (Benin)

Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet)

Kijiji Yeetu, Kenya

Lawyers for Human Rights (Ethiopia)  

Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)

Miaan Group

Nubian Rights Forum

Office of Civil Freedoms

Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

OpenNet Africa

Organization of the Justice Campaign

Paradigm Initiative (PIN)

PEN America

RosKomSvoboda

Rudi International

Sassoufit collective

Setaweet Movement 

Ubunteam

Women of Tigray 

Zaina Foundation

Zambia Bloggers Network

For More Information, please contact: 

Felicia Anthonio | #KeepItOn Campaign Manager | [email protected]