A senior Ethiopian official recently highlighted the importance of social media in a Twitter post all while the government failed to ensure access in areas of the country where there have been anti-government protests.
On the occasion of Twitter’s 10th anniversary in March, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom thanked the social media company for “connecting the world.”
However, Bloomberg today reported social media outlets have been restricted for more than a month in some areas amid unrest in the Oromia region:
Internet messaging applications such as WhatsApp haven’t worked for more than a month in parts of Ethiopia that include Oromia region, which recently suffered fatal protests, according to local users.
Smartphone owners haven’t been able to access services including Facebook Messenger and Twitter on the state-owned monopoly Ethio Telecom’s connection, Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer, said by phone from Woliso, about 115 kilometers (71.5 miles) southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa.
“All are not working here for more than one month,” said Seyoum, who teaches at Ambo University’s Woliso campus. “The blackout is targeted at mobile data connections.”
Though rights activists believe this fits a familiar pattern of repression, Ethiopia’s government spokesperson said he did not have an explanation for the outage and stated it could be due to “erratic connections”.
Tension over land and civil rights have been a longstanding problem in the Oromia region and took a recent turn for the worse when scores of protesters were killed and disappeared beginning late last year.
Social media posts, often sent in from outside Ethiopia, hint that protests are still going on to some degree, which may hint at why there is a Twitter blackout in some areas.
Notably, Ethiopia has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world at 1.7%, according to an October 2015 article in Fortune magazine.
Ethiopia also has used hacking tools to spy on journalists and the opposition, according to the Guardian:
In the case of the Ethiopian government, which used Hacking Team tools to spy on journalists and activists, Vincenzetti said: “We’re the good guys … when we heard that Galileo had been used to spy on a journalist in opposition of the government, we asked about this, and finally decided to stop supplying them in 2014.”
Even when access is available, Internet users — and those who report on censorship — are subject to surveillance and possible arrest.
In fact, the journalists and translator behind the aforementioned Bloomberg report were detained by the Ethiopian government, according to Newsweek.
Two journalists and a translator were arbitrarily detained for 24 hours on Thursday when reporting on the protests in Oromia, according to a statement issued by the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa (FCAEA) on Monday. Bloomberg correspondent William Davison and freelance journalist Jacey Fortin, along with their translator, were not given any reason for their detention. Their phones and identification cards were taken during the arrest.