For Eskinder Nega, the real punishment wasn’t his time wasted behind bars. It was seeing Nafkot suffer without a father.

By Justin Lynch |

Nafkot Nega thinks journalists are terrorists. When I visited him and his mother, Serkalem Fassil, at their tiny apartment in the outskirts of Washington, DC, in early January, 9-year-old Nafkot intermittently murmured and jabbed his hands, pretending to be a superhero fighting criminals.

Perhaps some of those criminals were journalists like his father, Eskinder Nega, who was convicted of violating Ethiopia’s anti-terror law in July 2012. Eskinder is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence.

“Journalism is a crime or a terrorist act in his mind because what has been portrayed about [his dad],” Serkalem explained to me through a translator. “Not only his dad, but if you mention any journalist he will scream and say ‘I don’t like journalists!’”

Their story is a weaving tale that mirrors how Ethiopia, home to over 90 million people, became a digital hermit nation. How Nafkot come to believe journalism is a crime equivalent to terrorism is a case study of how governments have used the internet as a tool for repression.

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The only way to access the internet in Ethiopia is through the government-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, which has unilateral control over the telecom industry. A burgeoning tech scene in neighboring Kenya, which has an internet penetration rate of 69.6 percent, has garnered the name “Silicon Savannah.” But in Ethiopia, the monopoly on internet access has created one of the most disconnected countries in the world.

Only 3.7 percent of Ethiopians have access to the internet, according to the latest data, one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. By comparison, South Sudan, which lacks most basic government services, has an internet penetration rate of 15.9 percent. There are only ten countries with lower internet penetration than Ethiopia. Most of them, such as Somalia and North Korea, are hampered by decades-long civil wars or largely sealed off from outside world.

As one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with one of the most storied cultures in the world, Ethiopia’s lack of internet access is astounding. It’s also troubling.

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