U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, told reporters in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, that he is concerned with the frequent internet shutdowns by the government. He said, “I’ve also experienced an internet shut down here in Ethiopia in the past week,” referring to a brief shutdown on Dec. 5 that Ethiopian officials said was to stop a cyber-attack targeting the country’s financial institutions.
Ethiopia has the habit of shutting down the internet. This year alone the government has shot down the internet nine times in 2019, mostly during national exams and public protests, he said.
“Internet shutdowns are almost always in violation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” said Kaye. “I want to strongly urge the government to not use internet shutdown as a tool. I’ve asked several times ‘Where do you have the authority in law to shut down the internet?’ Nobody couldn’t give me an answer.”
Ethiopia is one of several African countries that have blocked the internet or specific social media frequently Facebook, Twitter and others sites to stop information flow during elections or periods of crisis. Kaye stressed even though social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube have a relatively small presence in Ethiopia right now, they have an “extraordinary responsibility” to moderate contents to make sure postings are accurate.
He praised the reforms implemented by the controversial Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for achieving peace with neighboring Eritrea. He said, “This is a remarkable moment in Ethiopia with all sorts of reforms happening in the country,” adding that it is the first time since 2006 that a U.N. special rapporteur of his kind was invited into the country.
On the other hand he said that more reforms are needed. “I’ve expressed my concern regarding the draft hate speech and disinformation law as it may inadvertently criminalize public debate,” he said. Ethiopia is working on a draft law on hate speech which many fear it will be used to control descent.
Even though Ethiopia and Eritrea opened their borders and Ethiopian Airlines started a flight to Asmara, the hype was short lived. The border is now closed, youth is still flowing out of Eritrea and the close relationship between the two leaders has started to dwindle.