In its Web Index report released last week, the World Wide Web Consortium ranked Ethiopia 80th out of the 81 countries it covered. The ranking reaffirms ‘hélas‘ the widespread Cyber Censorship and Surveillance in Ethiopia, corroborates that with regards to ‘Internet freedom’, Ethiopia is the one of the most repressive countries in the World as recently reported by Freedom House in its Global assessment of Internet and Digital Media .
Interestingly, this new Web Index proposes a multi-dimensional measure of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations. The report “assesses how the web empowers people not only to receive information, but also to voice their own views, participate in public affairs and take action to improve their lives”.
The paper ranks countries in four categories: universality of Internet access; freedom to safely and privately access information and express opinions online; amount and availability of relevant content; and empowerment to use the tools of the Web to foster positive change. The U.S. and other developed countries scored poorly on the “freedom and openness” index in the wake of a series of revelations on the scope of governmental surveillance fueled by the leaks of classified documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Ethiopia had the lowest score in the sub-index on ‘Freedom and Openness’ assessing the extent to which citizens enjoy rights to information, opinion, expression, safety and privacy online. The report refers to the Telecom Fraud Offenses Law in Ethiopia seen by many as reinforcing the existing ban on VoIP. The law effectively opens the door for a prison sentence of up to eight years and a fine of up to 80,000 Birr (US$4,500) for “using or causing the use of any telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any terrorizing message” or using telecommunications for an “illegal purpose”. What constitutes a “terrorizing message” is left deliberately vague and allows broad interpretation under Ethiopia’s far-reaching and highly-critized anti-terrorism law. Many journalists and opposition party figures were indeed “criminalized’ for having reported about banned opposition groups and openly writing critics to the regime.
Ethiopian veteran journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and online journalist Reeyot Alemu were convicted under Ethiopia’s highly criticized 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for voicing challenging questions about government policies that were posted on web sites run by Ethiopians in the Diaspora. Despite the numerous calls from rights groups, Eskinder is in prison since 2011, serving an 18-year sentence on ‘terrorism charges’ .
It is to be recalled that the last independent technical tests conducted by OpenNet Initiative (ONI) in September 2012 found that the government owned sole Telecom operator in the country (Ethio Telecom) filters the Web primarily targeting ”independent online news media, political blogs and Ethiopian human rights groups’ websites. Of the 1,375 unique websites tested, 73 were blocked including online portals” such as AddisVoice, CyberEthiopia, EthioMedia, EthiopianReview, Nazret“, the report stated on page 278. (also see the Complete list of blocked web sites by the Ethiopian Government ).
On the other hand, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, repeatedly rejecting any possibilities of liberalization of the Telecom sector, claims to have set up policies to provide impetus for the development of ICT sector in the country by offering a “world class business environment along with a conducive policy and regulatory regime“, in particular by setting up an EthioICT village and various e-government initiatives. As detailed in the government’s five-year strategic goals in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformational Plan (GTP), Ethio Telecom, the state-led telecom, wants to reach 65 million subscribers by 2015 while maintaining a government full monopoly over the industry.
While these ambitious plans are truly commendable, critics affirm that all e-services by the government is not genuinely seeking to provide services of quality to citizens and consumers but rather initiated with the optic of strengthening the regime’s authoritarian rule and obstruct any outbreak of an ’Arab Spring’ type revolution in Ethiopia.
Telecom services are among the most expensive in the world in Ethiopia which has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration on the continent , according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ’s figures on Measuring the Information Society. Despite low access, the government maintains its myopic monopoly with strict controls on infrastructure and other value added ICT services (like M-Birr) while being the only one in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide, systematic and politically motivated internet filtering.
As one of the fastest growing economies on the continent, Ethiopia has the potential to be the regional outperformer in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), with many qualified professionals locally and in diaspora and a relatively untapped consumer markets in mobile service provision and other ICT services; however, the political environment could once again impede its progress unless the authoritarian regime in Addis Abeba realizes the need to adopt effective policies that unleash the potential of ICTs in stimulating economic growth, good governance and bring social opportunities to all Ethiopians rather than fearing the political ramifications of ICTs and pouring efforts on blocking websites, hunting bloggers and attempting to muzzle online political dissent.