Outrage over Ethiopia’s continuing internet blackout

NetBlocks, NGO monitoring internet censorship, estimates Ethiopians lose at least $4.5m each day the internet is cut.

An internet shutdown has been in force across Ethiopia since Saturday, after a group of soldiers staged a failed coup in Amhara state, the birthplace of many of Ethiopia’s emperors as well as its national language, Amharic.

The outage has frustrated citizens who rely on online services for information and for conducting business in one of sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, a nonprofit organisation that monitors internet censorship, condemned the decision to shut down the internet on the anniversary of a set of reforms that were announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and that aim to facilitate free speech.

“On 22 June 2018, his government declared free expression a foundational right and ordered the unblocking of over 200 websites. Instead, exactly one year later, the entire internet has been blocked and Ethiopia is digitally isolated from the world,” Toker said.

“At a time when the nation should be reflecting on the weekend’s events and coming to terms with the loss of life, they are instead denied information and a voice. The loss of dignity and symbolism couldn’t be more striking,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ethiopians now rely on national television to follow updates on the failed coup [Mulugeta Ayene/AP]

‘Can’t check messages’

Ethiopia was sub-Saharan Africa’s second fastest-growing economy last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. With an estimated population of 110 million people, its projected growth rate for 2019 is 7.7 percent. 

Internet access is key to unlocking the country’s economic potential. But access to online services remains highly restricted, according to a report by independent watchdog Freedom House.

The roughly 16 million internet users in Ethiopia have experienced internet shutdowns since 2015.

On Tuesday, Ethiopians were still unable to access the popular social messaging app Telegram as well as Facebook, Twitter and other online services.

Text messaging was also disrupted without any warning, sparking anger and frustrating many.

“I can’t check my messages. Even when I try to make phone calls, it is not very clear. It looks like the signals have also been affected. This is not nice at all,” Addis Ababa resident Makda Gebru told Al Jazeera.

“I have some very important emails to send to people outside Ethiopia, but I have to wait for the internet to be restored,” Gebru added.

Internet cuts in Ethiopia are nothing new, and residents aren’t sure when the practice will end.

On June 11, many Ethiopians woke up to an online blackout. At the time, no explanation was offered by the state-run Ethio Telecom, the sole provider of internet services in the country.

A week later, internet and text messages services were restored. While Ethio Telecom offered apologies to its subscribers, again, there was no explanation for what caused the disruption. 

News reports said the internet blackout was meant to block the leak of national exam answers.

Ethiopia government says rebellion quashed after arrests made

Intermittent internet outages have taken a toll on Ethiopia’s fledgling economy. Hardest hit are businesses that rely heavily on online services.

“After a series of unexplained internet cuts spanning earlier this month, internet users and businesses were already losing patience and money,” Toker said.

“NetBlocks estimates that Ethiopians lose at least $4.5m each day the internet is cut. The true price is probably higher because hard-earned investor and consumer confidence has now evaporated.”

The internet blackout that followed the failed coup on June 22 forced Ethiopians to rely on national television and radio for information and updates.

There have been claims and counterclaims by authorities since Saturday’s killings.

The failed coup is seen as the biggest challenge yet to sweeping political and economic reforms that Abiy kick-started after he took power in April 2018.

“Switching off access will only delay and radicalise critical voices as the government is likely to realise when the shutdown ends and Ethiopia’s internet users start coming back online,” Toker pointed out.

The Ethiopian government said it is back in control of the northeastern state of Amhara after the failed coup.

But there’s still no word on when internet services will be restored.

Source: Al Jazeera