Ethiopia has blocked social media sites as new Oromo protests hit the country

Fresh protests.
Fresh protests.
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
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Ethiopia’s government has blocked the internet following days of protests and unease that resulted in deaths and injuries in universities and towns across the East African nation.

In Chelenko town in Oromia region, media reports noted the killing of 16 people aged between 15 and 60 years, including family members who were harvesting sorghum on a farm. The family was reportedly not aware of the initial demonstrations in a nearby village, where locals blamed the killing of a prominent member of the community by the controversial Somali special forces known as the Liyu. This was followed by heightened ethnic tension in campuses, where students were allegedly killed at the hands of security forces.

As such, from Dec. 12, internet users in Ethiopia started mentioning that they couldn’t access several social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Moses Karanja, a doctoral candidate at University of Toronto and researcher at the Citizen Lab, said network scans on the state-owned operator Ethio Telecom confirmed that the websites were inaccessible. The government has a monopoly over the provision of mobile and internet services, and users couldn’t access these sites without using virtual private networks. The throttling of the sites didn’t, however, extend to WhatsApp or Telegram, an increasingly popular application in the country, according to Karanja.

“We have seen internet disruptions in Ethiopia serve as canaries in the mine of state violence in the past,” Karanja says. “With the state of emergency lifted, the recent university unrests may be a risk Addis Ababa is not willing to take lightly.”

Ethiopian blogger Befeqadu Hailu, who resides in Addis Ababa, also confirmed that he was using a VPN to talk to Quartz on Twitter’s direct message. “Some provinces in Amhara region, Wollo for example, mobile data is totally stopped and people have to get connected through broadband lines to surf the internet,” he said.

This is not the first time that Ethiopia has shut down the internet or blocked social media sites following anti-government protests. Ethiopia, the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile phone connectivity in the world. Since November 2015, when protests against the marginalization and persecution of the Oromos and Amharas rocked the country, the government cut off connections either in specific regions or throughout the country.

Mobile internet remained down across the country after officials announced nationwide emergency in Oct. 2016, with the state banning the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate or document the ongoing unrest. The government also doubles down on surveillance, using sophisticated commercial spyware to target dissidents and opposition media outlets.  The opposition Ethiopian Satellite Television said it was recently targeted with “heavy jamming,” leading it to go off air in Ethiopia.

Observers say the killings in Chelenko sent a shockwave across the country, forcing authorities in Oromia region to denounce the killings and call for an inquiry. The US embassy also said it was “troubled and saddened” by the violence in the town, calling for constructive means to resolve differences and hold those responsible accountable. But the spate of violence also highlights the discontents of Ethiopia’s much-lauded ethnic federalism. This is especially true of the Somali and Oromo communities, who share a long internal border and have for decades been competing for resources and land. Recent deadly clashes have led to the death of hundreds and displacement of tens of thousands others.

Mohammed Ademo, the editor of the OPride, a website that reports on Oromo diaspora and advocates for social justice in Ethiopia, says increasing violence and government heavy-handedness has led to calls for nationwide protests. And “that’s why authorities decided to throttle the internet to limit the flow of information and possible coordination in anticipation of further protests.”

The opposition Ethiopian Satellite Television says its frequency was recently jammed.
Ethiopian Satellite Television says it was targeted with “heavy jamming”
Image: Courtesy/ESAT