Extent of TPLF violations of the human rights of Ethiopians on the Net in 2015

30 Apr

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Freedom House

Freedom on the net 2016


    *   Press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power.

    *   Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

    *   Forty-one percent of the world’s population has a Partly Free press, and 46 percent live in Not Free media environments.

    *   Among the countries that suffered the largest declines in 2015 were Bangladesh, Turkey, Burundi, France, Serbia, Yemen, Egypt, Macedonia, and Zimbabwe.

    *   Twenty-three countries censored the political opposition, including Ethiopia, which obstructed hundreds of social media pages, blogs, and diaspora-based opposition websites that were created to report on the May 2015 general elections. Such censorship is often very effective in ensuring that opposing views are rarely heard and helping the incumbent government to stay in power.


Sub-Saharan Africa’s score performance by country
Sub-Saharan Africa's score performance by country



TOTAL ETHIOPIA SCORE: 82 (0 = Best, 100 = Worst)

During the review period, Ethiopia scored 82, the next worst behind it being 88, scored by Iran, Syria and China; comparatively, in 2014 Ethiopia’s score was 80.

Period under review: JUNE 2014—MAY 2015

Ethiopian in 2014 and 2015

    *   A significant number of service interruptions in the name of routine maintenance and system updates resulted in worsening service across the country. Internet services on 3G mobile internet networks were reportedly unavailable for more than a month in July and August 2014 (see Restrictions on Connectivity).

    *   A growing number of critical news and opposition websites were blocked in the lead up to the May 2015 elections (see Blocking and Filtering).

    *   Six bloggers of the prominent Zone 9 blogging collective arrested in April 2014 were officially charged with terrorism in July 2014; two of the bloggers were unexpectedly released and acquitted in July 2015, joined by the four others in October (see Prosecutions and Arrests).

    *   A university political science teacher known for his Facebook activism and another blogger were arrested and charged with terrorism in July 2014, among three others (see Prosecutions and Arrests).

    *   Online journalists in the Ethiopian diaspora were attacked with Hacking Team’s sophisticated surveillance malware.


In 2014–15, the Ethiopian authorities increased their crackdown on bloggers and online journalists, using the country’s harsh laws to prosecute individuals for their online activities and quash critical voices. The Zone 9 bloggers arrested in April 2014 were charged with terrorism in July 2014 and subsequently subjected to a series of sham trials through mid-2015. In July 2015, two of the imprisoned Zone 9 bloggers were unexpectedly released and acquitted of all charges, which observers attributed to U.S. President Barack Obama’s official visit to the country later that month. The four remaining Zone 9 bloggers were acquitted in October. Nevertheless, five other critical voices and bloggers who were arrested in July 2014 and charged with terrorism remain in prison. During the numerous Zone 9 trials throughout 2014–2015, several supporters were temporarily arrested for posting updates and pictures of their trials on social media via mobile devices.


Obstacles to Access:

A significant number of service interruptions in the name of routine maintenance and system updates resulted in worsening service across the country. Internet services on 3G mobile internet networks were reportedly unavailable for more than a month in July and August 2014.

Availability and Ease of Access

In 2015, access to ICTs in Ethiopia remained extremely limited, hampered by slow speeds and the state’s tight grip on the telecom sector.[2] According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), internet penetration stood at a mere 3 percent in 2014, up from just 2 percent in 2013.[3] Only 0.5 percent of the population had access to fixed-broadband connections, increasing from 0.25 percent in 2013.[4] Ethiopians had more access to mobile phone services, with mobile phone penetration rates increasing from 27 percent in 2013 to 32 percent in 2014,[5] though such access rates still lag behind an estimated regional average of 74 percent,[6] and cell phone ownership is much more common in urban areas than rural areas. Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of the population has a mobile-broadband subscription as of the latest available data from 2013.[7] In March 2015, Ethiopia’s single telecoms provider, the state-owned EthioTelecom, announced it had launched 4GLTE mobile technology in the capital Addis Ababa,[8] but the service is reportedly only available to a mere 400,000 subscribers.[9] Radio remains the principal mass medium through which most Ethiopians stay informed.

While access to the internet via mobile phones increased slightly in the past year, prohibitively expensive mobile data packages still posed a significant financial obstacle for the majority of the population in Ethiopia, where per capita income stood at US$470 as of the latest available data from 2013.[10] Ethiopia’s telecom market is highly undeveloped due to monopolistic control, providing customers with few options at arbitrary prices, which are set by the state-controlled EthioTelecom and kept artificially high.[11] As of mid-2015, monthly packages cost between ETB 200 and 3,000 (US$10 to $150) for 1 to 30 GB of 3G mobile services.

The combined cost of purchasing a computer, setting up an internet connection, and paying usage charges makes internet access beyond the reach of most Ethiopians. Consequently, only 2 percent of Ethiopian households have fixed-line internet access in their homes.[12] While access via mobile internet is increasing, the majority of internet users still rely on cybercafes to log online. A typical internet user in Addis Ababa pays between ETB 5 and 7 (US$0.25 to $0.35) for an hour of access. Because of the scarcity of internet cafes outside urban areas, however, rates in rural cybercafes are more expensive.

For the few Ethiopians who can access the internet, connection speeds are known to be painstakingly slow and have not improved in years, despite rapid improvements everywhere else around the world. Logging into an email account and opening a single message can still take as long as six minutes at a standard cybercafe with broadband in the capital city—the same rate reported over the past few years—while attaching documents or images to an email can take as long as eight minutes or more.[13] According to May 2015 data from Akamai’s “State of the Internet” report, Ethiopia has an average connection speed of 1.8 Mbps (compared to a global average of 3.9 Mbps).[14]

Despite reports of massive investments from Chinese telecom companies in recent years,[15] Ethiopia’s telecommunications infrastructure is among the least developed in Africa and is almost entirely absent from rural areas, where about 85 percent of the population resides. There are only a few signal stations across the country, resulting in frequent network congestions and disconnections, even on state controlled media.[16] Consequently, many people often use their cell phones as music players or cameras. In a typical small town of Ethiopia, individuals often hike to the top of their nearest hills to access a signal for a mobile phone call. Frequent electricity outages also contribute to poor telecom services.

Restrictions on Connectivity

The Ethiopian government’s complete control over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure via EthioTelecom enables it to restrict access to the internet and mobile phone services. Ethiopia is connected to the international internet via satellite, a fiber-optic cable that passes through Sudan and connects to its international gateway, and the SEACOM cable that connects through Djibouti to an international undersea cable. All connections to the international internet are completely centralized via EthioTelecom, enabling the government to cut off the internet at will. As a result, the internet research company Renesys classified Ethiopia “as being at severe risk of Internet disconnection,” alongside Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen in a February 2014 assessment.[17]

There were a significant number of service interruptions throughout the year in the name of routine maintenance of network infrastructure and system updates across the country, resulting in worsening service. Numerous users reported extremely slow internet and text messaging speeds during the coverage period, and internet services on EVDO and CDMA networks were reportedly unavailable for more than a month in July and August 2014.[18]

In a sample test conducted in March 2015 to measure the frequency and pervasiveness of mobile network interruptions, 40 to 60 percent of phone calls dropped in the middle of conversation.[19] Nearly 70 percent of the time, testers needed to make prolonged and repeated attempts for their calls to go through. Text messaging services were also found to be extremely poor and slow. The same sample test found that it took an average of six minutes to send a text message to ten individuals, while replies varied from one to six minutes. Approximately 30 percent of text messages were not delivered to the intended recipient at all. The test further found that 60 percent of mobile phone users frequently ran out of their prepaid mobile data allowances prematurely.

China is a key investor in Ethiopia’s telecommunications industry,22 with Zhongxing Telecommunication Corporation (ZTE) and Huawei currently serving as contractors to upgrade broadband networks to 4G in Addis Ababa and to expand 3G across the country.23 The partnership has enabled Ethiopia’s authoritarian leaders to maintain their hold over the telecom sector,24 though the networks built by the Chinese firms have been criticized for their high cost and poor service.25 Furthermore, the
contracts have led to increasing fears that the Chinese may also be assisting the authorities in developing more robust ICT censorship and surveillance capacities.26 In December 2014, the Swedish telecom group Ericsson emerged as the latest partner to improve and repair the quality of Ethiopia’s mobile network infrastructure,27 though China’s ZTE still maintains the lion’s share of the telecom infrastructure investment sector.

Violations of User Rights

The limited space for online expression continued to deteriorate alongside an increasing crackdown on bloggers. The Zone 9 bloggers arrested in April 2014 were charged with terrorism in July 2014 and subsequently subjected to a series of sham trials through mid-2015. In July 2015, two of the imprisoned Zone 9 bloggers were unexpectedly released and acquitted of all charges, leaving four in prison alongside five other individuals who were arrested in July 2014 and charged with terrorism for their various ICT activities. Independent journalists in the diaspora were targeted with Hacking Team surveillance spyware.

Legal Environment

The 1995 Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and access to information, while also prohibiting censorship.58 These constitutional guarantees are affirmed in the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, known as the press law, which governs the print media.59 Nevertheless, the press law also includes problematic provisions that contradict constitutional protections and restrict free expression, such as onerous registration processes for media outlets and high fines for defamation.60 The Criminal Code also penalizes defamation with a fine or up to one year in prison.61

In 2012, the government introduced specific restrictions on an array of ICT activities under amendments to the 1996 Telecom Fraud Offences Law,62 which had already placed bans on certain communication applications, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)63 like Skype and Google Voice, call back services, and internet-based fax services.64 Under the 2012 amendments, the penalties under the preexisting ban were toughened, increasing the fine and maximum prison sentence from five to eight years for service providers, and penalizing users with three months to two years in prison.65 The law also added the requirement for all individuals to register their telecommunications equipment—including smartphones—with the government, which security officials typically enforce by confiscating ICT equipment when a registration permit cannot be furnished at security checkpoints, according to sources in the country.

Most alarmingly, the 2012 Telecom Fraud Offences Law extended the violations and penalties defined in the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and criminal code to electronic communications, which explicitly include both mobile phone and internet services.66 The anti-terrorism legislation prescribes prison sentences of up to 20 years for the publication of statements that can be understood as a direct or indirect encouragement of terrorism, a vaguely defined term.67

According to a December 2014 news report by Ethiopian State Television, a draft Computer and Internet Crime Bill is currently in the works by the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). The news report featured remarks by the INSA director, who insisted that the draft cybercrime law aimed to strengthen the government’s powers to prevent, control, investigate, and prosecute cybercrimes, including on social media. Observers are concerned that the law will empower state agencies to monitor private social media activities without oversight.68

Surveillance and Anonymity

Government surveillance of online and mobile phone communications is pervasive in Ethiopia, and evidence has emerged in recent years that reveal the scale of such practices. According to 2014 Human Rights Watch research, there are strong indications that the government has deployed a centralized monitoring system from the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, known as ZXMT, to monitor phone lines and various types of communications, including mobile phone networks and the internet.83 Known for its use by repressive regimes in Libya and Iran, ZXMT enables deep packet inspection (DPI) of internet traffic across the EthioTelecom network and has the ability to intercept emails and web chats.

Another ZTE technology, known as ZSmart, is a customer management database installed at EthioTelecom that provides the government with full access to user information and the ability to intercept SMS text messages and record phone conversations.84 ZSmart also allows security officials to locate targeted individuals through real-time geolocation tracking of mobile phones.85 While the extent to which the government has made use of the full range of ZTE’s sophisticated surveillance systems is unclear, the authorities frequently present intercepted emails and phone calls as evidence during trials against journalists and bloggers or during interrogations as a scare tactic.86 There has been an increasing trend of exiled dissidents targeted with surveillance malware in the past few years (see “Technical Attacks”). Recent Citizen Lab research published in March 2015 uncovered the use of Remote Control System (RCS) spyware against two employees of the diaspora-run independent satellite television, radio, and online news media outlet, Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT), based in Alexandria, Virginia, in November and December 2014.87 Made by the Italian company Hacking Team, RCS spyware is advertised as “offensive technology” sold exclusively to law
enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, and has the ability to steal files and passwords, as well as to intercept Skype calls and chats.88

While Hacking Team claims that they do not deal with “repressive regimes,”89 the social engineering tactics used to bait the two ESAT employees made it clear that the attack was targeted. Moreover, analysis of the RCS attacks uncovered credible links to the Ethiopian government, with the spyware’s servers registered at an EthioTelecom address under the name “INSA-PC,” referring to the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), the body established in 2011 to preside over the security of the country’s critical communications infrastructure.90 INSA was already known to be using the commercial toolkit FinFisher—a device that can secretly monitor computers by turning on webcams, record everything a user types with a key logger, and intercept Skype calls—to target dissidents and
supposed national security threats.91

Given the high degree of online repression in Ethiopia, political commentators use proxy servers and anonymizing tools to hide their identities when publishing online and to circumvent filtering, though the ability to communicate anonymously has become more difficult. The Tor Network anonymizing tool has been blocked since May 2012.

Anonymity is further compromised by strict SIM card registration requirements. Upon purchase of a SIM card through EthioTelecom or an authorized reseller, individuals must provide their full name, address, government-issued identification number, and a passport-sized photograph. EthioTelecom’s database of SIM registrants enables the government to cut-off the SIM cards belonging to targeted individuals and to restrict those individuals from registering for new SIM cards. Internet subscribers are also required to register their personal details, including their home address, with the government. In 2013, an inside informant leaked worrying details of potential draft legislation that seeks to mandate real-name registration for all internet users in Ethiopia, though there are no further details of this development as of mid-2015.92

While the government’s stronghold over the Ethiopian ICT sector enables it to proactively monitor users, its access to user activity and information is less direct at cybercafes. For a period following the 2005 elections, cybercafe owners were required to keep a register of their clients, but the requirement has not been enforced since mid-2010.93 Nevertheless, some cybercafe operators revealed that they are required to report any “unusual behavior” to security officials, and officials often visit cybercafes (sometimes in plainclothes) to ask questions about specific users or to monitor user activity themselves.

Technical Attacks

Opposition critics and independent voices face frequent technical attacks, even when based abroad. In recent years, independent research has found evidence that the Ethiopian authorities use sophisticated surveillance malware and spyware, such as FinFisher’s FinSpy and Hacking Team’s Remote Control Servers (RCS), to target exiled dissidents. The most recent attack was recorded in December 2014 by researchers at Citizen Lab, who discovered RCS spyware in attached documents sent in
emails to journalists with the Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT), an independent TV, radio, and online news outlet run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora in Virginia.99 Having been targeted with the RCS spyware before,100 the journalists did not download the attachments that would have installed the spyware and enabled the attackers to access files on the infected computers. The journalists believe the attack was an effort by the authorities to ascertain ESAT’s sources within Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, a technical attack in late 2012 and early 2013 on an exiled dissident (and American citizen) is currently the basis of an ongoing legal case at a U.S. District Court filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).101 In April 2013, EFF sued the Ethiopian government in a U.S. court on behalf of the anonymous Ethiopian dissident for implanting malicious FinSpy malware on the individual’s computer. Linked to a server belonging to EthioTelecom, FinSpy had secretly recorded dozens of Skype calls, copied emails the individual had sent, and logged a web search conducted by his son on the history of sports medicine for a school research project.102

/Freedom on the Net 2015

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