Ethiopia: Third Internet shutdown follows imprisonment of two human rights activists

ARTICLE 19 condemns the ongoing internet shutdown in Ethiopia that has paralyzed access to information and communication across the country since 30 May. This latest shutdown is broader than previous ones as it prevents both private and government actors from accessing essential information on the internet. The Ethiopian government has announced that the shutdown will continue until 8 June.

The shutdown followed the imprisonment of two prominent human rights activists for online expression.  On 25 May, Yonatan Tesfaye was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for inciting anti-government protests in nine Facebook posts. The day before his colleague Getachew Shiferaw had been sentenced to one year and six months in prison for inciting violence through a private message he sent to colleagues using the Facebook messenger app.

There have been numerous recent cases of people being jailed for posting messages that speak out against the state’s violent handling of protests calling for protection of land rights and other basic freedoms. The internet shutdown is a further move by the state to stifle discussion on continued violations of human rights under the ongoing State of Emergency, which has been in place since October 2016.

This is the third time that the internet has been shut down in Ethiopia since November 2015. In July and August 2016, the government shut down the internet in selected regions after university entrance exams were posted online.  Activists had leaked the papers as a way of calling for the postponement of the exams due to a school shutdown in the regional state of Oromia. State officials have stated that the recent shutdown was required to prevent students from cheating in the upcoming exams.

However, this shutdown must be understood within the context of the ongoing use of violence and mass arrests by the state against protesters in the Oromia region that is close to Addis Ababa. A significant number of those arrested have been jailed without any charges being brought against them.

“A blanket internet shutdown has grave implications on freedom of expression in the country and should be especially discouraged in the context of the ongoing state of emergency. In a situation where it is almost impossible to exercise freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly on the ground, the internet gives citizens an alternative space to organize and express themselves around discussions on national issues. Given the worrying context of repression and the current state of emergency, blocking access to the internet nationally is a clearly disproportionate response to potential exam cheating,” said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

In June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, a significant policy directive affirming states’ obligation to promote, protect, and support citizens’ enjoyment of human rights on the internet. This move by the Ethiopian government contravenes Ethiopia’s commitments under this resolution by disrupting free expression and dissemination of information online.

It is also in contravention of Article 29 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, which protects the right to freedom of expression and to seek, receive and impart information, “through any media”.

“These incidents show how the entrenchment of a state of emergency can lead to significant human rights violations in both online and offline spaces. The internet is a key enabler of expression and access to information and should only be regulated as per established international standards.” added Mr. Maina.

ARTICLE 19 urges the Ethiopian government to immediately cease the shutdown and enable all forms of communication and access to information over the internet. We also urge the government to end the state of emergency and initiate a dialogue process that will bring an end to human rights violations against protesters in the Oromia region.