(Nairobi, March) – The Ethiopian government should immediately lift the shutdown of internet and phone communications in the Oromia region. The two-month-long shutdown has prevented families from communicating, disrupted life-saving services, and contributed to an information blackout during government counterinsurgency operations in the area.
Since January 3, 2020, the authorities have disconnected mobile phone networks, landlines, and internet services in western Oromia’s Kellem Wellega, West Wellega, and Horo Gudru Wellega zones. In East Wellega, residents reported that the internet and social media services were blocked, with text and cell service available only in major towns. The shutdown has been imposed in areas under federal military control and comes amid reports of government military operations against the armed wing of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The media have credibly reported human rights abuses, including accounts of killings and mass detentions by government forces.
“The Ethiopian government’s blanket shutdown of communications in Oromia is taking a disproportionate toll on the population and should be lifted immediately,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The restrictions affect essential services, reporting on critical events, and human rights investigations, and could risk making an already bad humanitarian situation even worse.”
Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, communication blackouts without government justifications has become routine during social and political unrest, Human Rights Watch said.
A ruling party regional spokesman told the media in January that the communications shutdown had “no relationship” to the military operations but then said that it had contributed to the operation’s success. The federal government offered no explanation for the shutdown until February 3, when Abiy told parliament that restrictions were in place in western Oromia for “security reasons.”
International human rights law protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information and ideas through all media, including the internet. Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. A lack of government transparency regarding communication shutdowns and their length invites abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
Four humanitarian agencies operating in the affected zones told Human Rights Watch that their activities were considerably hampered because they could not get critical information on the humanitarian and security situation. One aid worker said that health care services were also affected, with doctors and ambulances unable to communicate with patients.
The communications blackout was also affecting people outside these areas who are desperate for news of their loved ones. One Addis Ababa resident told Human Rights Watch: “Prior to the blackout, I was able to communicate with my mom almost every day. She lives alone. Now that internet and phone services are blocked, I worry very much.”
One university lecturer described the effects of the shutdown on his students: “PhD students are worried about the how this will impact their final dissertations and tests. They don’t have access to the online materials and the library doesn’t have hard copies of the research or the books they need.”
Students whose families have been affected by the communications shutdown and the military operations have held sporadic protests on some university campuses. On January 10, at Bule Hora University, security forces fired live ammunition at protesting students. Three witnesses to the crackdown, including one who went to the hospital after the incident, said that one student had been shot dead and at least a dozen injured. “Many students at Bule Hora are from [the Wellega zones] and were not able to contact their families,” one witness said. “Some students were hit or beaten after confrontations with security forces.”
In 2019, Ethiopia shut down the internet eight times during public protests and unnecessarily around national exams. Following the June 22 assassinations of five high-level government officials, which the government linked to an alleged failed coup attempt in the Amhara region, the government imposed an internet blackout across the country. The internet was only completely restored on July 2. At the time of the shutdown, the government gave no explanation or indication of when the service would be restored.
In August, Abiy told the media that he would switch off the internet “forever” if deadly unrest prompted by online incitement continued, asserting that the internet was “neither water nor air,” and thus not an essential right.
In January, the Ethiopian government introduced a hate speech and disinformation law that could have a chilling effect on free expression and access to information online. Overbroad and vague language in the law may facilitate misuse by authorities who may use the law to justify blanket internet and network shutdowns.
Communications shutdowns violate multiple rights, Human Rights Watch said. In their 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations,United Nations experts and rapporteurs stated that even in times of conflict, the use of communication “kill switches” (i.e., shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.
During a visit to Ethiopia in December, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, expressed his concerns that the Ethiopian government’s use of internet shutdowns occurred “without constraint under law or policy.” In a 2017 report, Kaye wrote that network shutdowns fail to meet the standard of necessity and that governments need to demonstrate that any shutdown would not only be necessary, but would achieve its stated purpose since shutdowns often have the opposite effect. “It has been found that maintaining network connectivity may mitigate public safety concerns and help restore public order,” he stated.
Instead of indefinite, blanket shutdowns and repressing peaceful dissent, Ethiopian authorities should use the media to provide transparent information that can discourage violence and direct security forces to act according to international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.
“The lack of transparency and failure to explain these shutdowns only furthers the perception that they are meant to suppress public criticism of the government,” Bader said. “Amid ongoing unrest and ahead of critical national elections, the government should be seeking to maintain internet and phone communications to ease public safety concerns, not increase them.”