The government is trying to ‘shut down’ the internet, but some of Addis Ababa’s young techies are one step ahead. Barney Cullum meets them.

(New Internationalist)―Tigrayans, an ethnic group representing just six per cent of Ethiopia’s population, ‘own’ the country’s coalition government. This, the view of the Ethiopian Border Affairs Committee NGO, reflects the resentment felt by much of the majority ethnic group, the Oromo people, towards the ruling elite.

The lack of representation felt by the Oromia region, which is made up mostly of Oromo people and contains Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, has fueled a series of protests over the last two years. There are ongoing restrictions on free expression, association, and peaceful assembly, described as draconian by Human Rights Watch.

These tensions can be seen in the compelling battle for control of – and access to – the internet. This war is largely being waged between the ruling regime, led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front Party, and a new generation of software-smart young professionals in Addis Ababa.

Draconian crackdown

While there are policies restricting access to the internet across the world, they have never been attempted on the scale seen in Ethiopia. The country has 100 million people but only one internet server provider, owned by the Government. A state of emergency directive approved in October 2016 places heavy restrictions on the use of social media and other online communication.

‘It was completely shut down two days before the state of emergency was declared,’ recalls 27-year-old Abraham, a web developer at a digital marketing start-up. ‘Over time, access to email sites became available, for people who have access to WiFi. Most people in Addis, let alone the rest of Ethiopia, don’t have access to WiFi. Every other website was blocked.’

One week after the state of emergency was called, any internet communication that could be taken to ‘create misunderstanding between people’ was made illegal. The Government was most concerned by Facebook, through which it said videos of arson were being posted by protestors to inspire copycat attacks. Activists also posted videos of police and security forces assaulting Oroma rebels. Five year prison sentences became the deterrent for publishing such material, but for most even basic access the internet has been impossible.

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