Since January 03, the Ethiopian government has disconnected mobile phone networks, landlines, and internet services 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.
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 have 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 03, 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.”
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 02. 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. (Source: HRW)