March 25, 2014


This report is based on research conducted between September 2012 and February 2014 in Ethiopia and 10 other countries, including interviews with Ethiopians living outside the country. The report documents through interviews, review of secondary material, and Internet filtering testing, how the Ethiopian government uses its control over the telecommunications system to restrict the right to privacy and freedoms of expression, information, and association, among other rights.

Over 100 individuals were interviewed, including those whose right to privacy, access to information, and freedom of expression have been abused, former and current intelligence and security officials, Ethio Telecom employees, and other government officials. All were interviewed individually. Interviews were carried out in person and via telephone in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Israel, the United States, and five countries in Europe.[1] Interviewees included people from a wide range of backgrounds, age, ethnicity, urban, rural, and geographic origin.

Interviews were all conducted in English or with interpreters from Amharic, Afan Oromo, or other Ethiopian local languages into English. Different interpreters were used. Human Rights Watch took various precautions to verify the credibility of interviewees’ statements. None of the interviewees were offered any form of compensation for agreeing to participate in interviews. All interviewees voluntarily consented to be interviewed and were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to stop the interview at any point.

In addition to interviews, Human Rights Watch consulted a variety of secondary material, including academic articles and NGO reports, that corroborates details or patterns described in the report. This material includes previous Human Rights Watch research as well as information collected by other credible technology experts and independent human rights investigators.

Internet filtering testing was carried out in Ethiopia in July and August 2013 in collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, an institute that conducts research on information technology, human rights, and global security. Testing was carried out in Addis Ababa and several other cities. Human Rights Watch tested whether Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) were accessible within the country, with a focus on those websites that had a reasonable likelihood of being blocked based on the Open Network Initiative’s (ONI) previous testing in 2012. ONI’s 2012 investigation also tested whether a range of websites were accessible from within Ethiopia. For this report, a total of 19 tests were run over seven different days to ensure reliability of results.

In part because the Ethiopian government restricts human rights research in the country, this report is not a comprehensive assessment of the surveillance situation in Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch and other independent national and international human rights organizations face extraordinary challenges to carrying out investigations in Ethiopia. This is mainly because of the difficulty of assuring the safety and confidentiality of victims of human rights abuses, given the government’s hostility towards human rights investigation and reporting. Increasingly, the families of individuals outside of Ethiopia who provide information can also be at risk of reprisals.

The Ethiopian government routinely dismisses Human Rights Watch reports, regularly criticizes Human Rights Watch as an organization, and dismisses the findings of our research. This heightens concerns that any form of involvement with Human Rights Watch, including speaking to the organization, could be used against individuals. The authorities have, in the past, harassed and detained individuals for providing information to, or meeting with, international human rights investigators and journalists.

Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report inside Ethiopia, but many of the people were interviewed outside of the country, making it easier for them to speak openly about their experiences. For fear of possible reprisals, all names and identifying information of interviewees have been removed, and locations of interviews withheld, where such information could suggest someone’s identity. In certain cases, pertinent information has been omitted altogether because of concerns that disclosing such information would reveal the identity of interviewees.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the government of Ethiopia, ZTE, Sinovatio (previously known as ZTE Special Equipment Company), Huawei, France Telecom-Orange, Hacking Team, Gamma/FinFisher, and the World Bank to request input on the findings from this report.[2] Any responses received were included in this report as annexes or posted on the Human Rights Watch website.

[1] United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Belgium.

[2] ZTE and Huawei are based in China. Gamma/FinFisher are based in Germany and the UK. Hacking Team is incorporated in Italy.