A Downward Spiral for Freedom of Expression in Ethiopia

by By Katrina Kaiser



Internet shutdowns, content filtering, arrests of bloggers, and online

surveillance in North Africa have been headline news for the past year and

a half, but internet issues in the rest of the African continent haven’t

received quite as much press coverage. This silence is partly because there

is simply less internet penetration south of the Sahara, but there may also

be a paralyzing current of opinion whereby stories that highlight human

rights issues or a lack of democracy in the region are either dismissed as

old news or written off as paternalistic.


Ethiopia sometimes gets particularly little coverage in Western or

international media because the political situation there is not nearly as

dramatic as it is in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The government

is nominally structured as a parliamentary democracy and it has good

relations with the United States and Europe. Still, the ruling Ethiopian

People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front tightly controls the country’s

electoral politics and media representation.


Internet censorship and content filtering are


Ethiopia. The state owns and manages the country’s sole Internet

Service provider, Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (Ethio-Telcom). While

Ethiopian Internet penetration is only about 1%, there is still a vibrant,

tightly-knit community of bloggers whose websites, blogs, and Facebook

pages have been blocked by the government. The blocks themselves look

innocuous to Ethiopian Internet users, because the browser will simply

notify users that the server request has timed out.


This error-message block is similar to what users have experienced in


trying to access censored websites or use restricted search terms. It

figures, then, that the Ethiopian and Chinese governments have conducted

joint workshops<http://www.eprdf.org.et/web/guest/news/-/asset_publisher/c0F7/content/3-june-2012-26-2004>on

“mass media institution” management and Internet management.

Inexpensive Chinese technology has also replaced American technology for building

Ethiopian Internet infrastructure.


EFF recently reported on a new Telecom Service Infringement


includes explicit content-filtering provisions that protect “national

security.” The law criminalizes online speech that may be construed as

defamatory or terrorist, and holds the website or account owner liable even

if the speech is posted as a comment by a third party on their website.

These speech-chilling stipulations are hidden deep within a licensing bill

that would, on the surface, seem to simply clarify Ethio-Telecom’s power to

regulate Internet services such as VoIP.


Aggressive content regulation through secret filtering and legal

restrictions is just the beginning of Ethiopia’s draconian Internet policy.

Ethio-Telecom has recently begun deep packet inspection of all Internet

traffic in the country. Engineers at the Tor Project



Tor <https://www.torproject.org/about/overview> stopped working in Ethiopia

weeks ago. They determined that the Internet service provider had figured

out how to fingerprint and subsequently block Tor requests encrypted

through TLS. Bridge-configuration, the ordinary way to get around Tor

blocks in other countries, failed to work in Ethiopia until a workaround

was subsequently developed. An engineer at Tor later


“My guess is that they are only blocking Tor because whatever device

(probably from an outside firm) they have came with a block-Tor-plugin.” At

this time, the only other countries that actively block access to Tor are

China and Iran.


Why does Ethiopia keep company with some of the most restrictive Internet

regimes in the world if the country has so little connectivity and few

users? The country’s Internet policy continues to develop in the broader

context of an equally restrictive press freedom environment. During the

last general election in 2005, many journalists, election observers, and

opposition party leaders were detained. UNESCO hosted a World Press Freedom

Day event in Addis Ababa, the national capital, about a year ago.

Ironically, the government forcibly


independent journalists on the agenda with pro-government speakers.


Like the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan,

Tajikistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan, the Ethiopian government may be

ratcheting up its Internet censorship regime in response to fears sparked

by the Arab Spring. EFF will continue to keep a close eye on development as

politically sensitive milestones, such as the Ethiopia’s general election,


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