One day they arrested me and they showed me everything. They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother. They arrested me because we talked about politics on the phone. It was the first phone I ever owned, and I thought I could finally talk freely.
— Former member of an Oromo opposition party, now a refugee in Kenya, May 2013
Since 2010, Ethiopia’s information technology capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds. Although Ethiopia still lags well behind many other countries in Africa, mobile phone coverage is increasing and access to email and social media have opened up opportunities for young Ethiopians—especially those living in urban areas—to communicate with each other and share viewpoints and ideas.
The Ethiopian government should consider the spread of Internet and other communications technology an important opportunity. Encouraging the growth of the telecommunications sector is crucial for the country to modernize and achieve its ambitious economic growth targets.
Instead, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnically-based political parties in power for more than 20 years, continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It has used repressive laws to decimate civil society organizations and independent media and target individuals with politically-motivated prosecutions. The ethnic Oromo population has been particularly affected, with the ruling party using the fear of the ongoing but limited insurgency by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the Oromia region to justify widespread repression of the ethnic Oromo population. Associations with other banned groups, including Ginbot 7, are also used to justify repression.
As a result, the increasing technological ability of Ethiopians to communicate, express their views, and organize is viewed less as a social benefit and more as a political threat for the ruling party, which depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population.
The Ethiopian government has maintained strict control over Internet and mobile technologies so it can monitor their use and limit the type of information that is being communicated and accessed. Unlike most other African countries, Ethiopia has a complete monopoly over its rapidly growing telecommunications sector through the state-owned operator, Ethio Telecom. This monopoly ensures that Ethiopia can effectively limit access to information and curtail freedoms of expression and association without any oversight since independent legislative or judicial mechanisms that would ensure that surveillance capabilities are not misused do not exist in Ethiopia.
All governments around the world engage in surveillance, but in most countries at least some judicial and legislative mechanisms are in place to protect privacy and other rights. In Ethiopia these mechanisms are largely absent. The government’s actual control is exacerbated by the perception among Ethiopia’s population that government surveillance is omnipresent. This results in considerable self-censorship, with many Ethiopians refraining from openly communicating on a variety of topics across the telecom network.
This report is based on research conducted between September 2012 and February 2014, including interviews with more than 100 people in 11 countries. It documents how the Ethiopian government uses its control over the telecommunications system to restrict the right to privacy and freedoms of expression and association, and access to information, among other rights. These rights are entrenched in international law and frequently touted by the government as part of Ethiopia’s constitution. In practice, they are undercut by problematic national laws and practices by the authorities that wholly disregard any legal protections.
Websites of opposition parties, independent media sites, blogs, and several international media outlets are routinely blocked by government censors. Radio and television stations are routinely jammed. Bloggers and Facebook users face harassment and the threat of arrest should they refuse to tone down their online writings. The message is simple: self-censor to limit criticism of the government or you will be censored and subject to arrest.
Information gleaned from telecom and Internet sources is regularly used against Ethiopians arrested for alleged anti-government activities. During interrogations, police show suspects lists of phone calls and are questioned about the identity of callers, particularly foreign callers. They play recorded phone conversations with friends and family members. The information is routinely obtained without judicial warrants. While this electronic “evidence” appears to be used mostly to compel suspects to confess or to provide information, some recorded emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the repressive Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
The government has also used its telecom and Internet monopoly to curtail lawful opposition activities. Phone networks have been shut down during peaceful protests. Some high-profile Ethiopians in the diaspora have been targeted with highly advanced surveillance tools designed to covertly monitor online activity and steal passwords and files.
In rural Ethiopia, where phone coverage and Internet access is very limited, the government maintains control through extensive networks of informants and a grassroots system of surveillance. This rural legacy means that ordinary Ethiopians commonly view mobile phones and other new communications technologies as just another tool to monitor them. As a result, self-censorship in phone and email communication is rampant as people extend their long-held fears of government interference in their private lives to their mobile phone use. These perceptions of phone surveillance are far more intrusive than the reality, at least at present.
Ethiopia has acquired some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technologies, but the scale of its actual telecom surveillance is limited by human capacity issues and a lack of trust among key government departments. But while use of these technologies has been limited to date, the historic fear of ordinary Ethiopians of questioning their government and the perception of pervasive surveillance serves the same purpose: it silences independent voices and limits freedom of speech and opinion. Human Rights Watch research suggests that this may just be the beginning: Ethiopians may increasingly experience far more prevalent unlawful use of phone and email surveillance should the government’s human capacity increase.
While monitoring of communications can legitimately be used to combat criminal activity, corruption, and terrorism, in Ethiopia there is little in the way of guidelines or directives on surveillance of communications or use of collected information to ensure such practices are not illegal. In different parts of the world, the rapid growth of information and communications technology has provided new opportunities for individuals to communicate in a manner and at a pace like never before, increasing the space for political discourse and facilitating access to information. However, many Ethiopians have not been able to enjoy these opportunities. Instead, information and communications technology is being used as yet another method through which the government seeks to exercise complete control over the population, stifling the rights to freedom of expression and association, eroding privacy, and limiting access to information—all of which limit opportunities for expressing contrary opinions and engaging in meaningful debate.
Court warrants are required for surveillance or searches but in practice none are issued. Intercepted communications have become tools used to crack down on political dissenters and other critics of the ruling party. Opposition party members, journalists, and young, educated Oromos are among the key targets.
The infrastructure for surveillance was not created by the Ethiopian government alone, but with the support of investors in the Internet and telecom sector, including Chinese and European companies. These foreign companies have provided the products, services, and expertise to modernize the sector.
Ethiopia should not only ensure that an appropriate legal framework is in place to protect and respect privacy rights entrenched in international law, but also that this legal framework is applied in practice. Companies that provide surveillance technology, software, or services should adopt policies to ensure these products are being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes and not to repress opposition parties, journalists, bloggers, and others.