FEATURE-Six million people silenced: A two-year internet blackout in Ethiopia

* Stop in the Ethiopian region among the longest in the world

* Power outage hampers aid deliveries and destroys businesses

* Authorities say closures help reduce violence

By Zecharias Zelalem Sep 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – She had just been crowned world champion, but Ethiopian marathon runner Gotytom Gebreslase broke down in tears when asked if her family were celebrating her victory in war-torn Tigray .

“I haven’t spoken to my parents in months,” she said, wiping her eyes during a press conference at the World Championships in Athletics in Eugene, Wash. Oregon, in the northwestern United States, in July. “I wish my father and mother could celebrate my achievement like other Ethiopians.”

Few have been spared the effects of a nearly two-year-long internet and phone blackout in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which has been cut off since fighting erupted between Tigrayan rebels and government forces in November 2020. Conflict resumed last month after a month-long humanitarian truce, dashing hopes of restoring communications.

Even the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, from Tigray, said he had been unable to reach his relatives or send them money. “I don’t even know who’s dead or who’s alive,” Tedros told a recent press conference in London.

As fighting continues in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government says shutdowns are needed to curb the violence, but critics accuse authorities of using the internet as a weapon of war. “Access to communications and other basic services, and especially humanitarian aid, is explicitly used as a bargaining chip by the Ethiopian government,” said Goitom Gebreluel, a political analyst specializing in Horn of the East affairs. ‘Africa.

“It is used as leverage against Tigray and the international community.” SATELLITE PHONES AND PRINTS

Around the world, internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated, last longer, harm people and the economy, and target vulnerable groups around the world, according to digital rights group Access Now. It recorded some 182 internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, compared to 159 shutdowns in 29 countries the previous year.

In Ethiopia, sporadic internet and phone blackouts have been used as “a weapon to control and censor information”, the group said, making it difficult for journalists and activists to document alleged crimes against women. human rights and to deliver aid. In Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, emergency workarounds such as satellite phones have become a vital tool for aid agency operations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also maintains a satellite phone service for local residents, giving them a way to get a message to loved ones. Since the beginning of the year, the ICRC has facilitated some 116,000 phone calls and voice messages “between family members separated by conflict and violence”, spokeswoman Alyona Synenko said.

With nearly half of the region’s six million people in dire need of food, the closure along with roadblocks have hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. The lack of mobile phone networks has also “crippled both emergency and routine health surveillance systems”, a WHO spokesperson said in emailed remarks.

The only way to communicate is “via paper reports which must be hand-delivered. All meetings must be in person.” Government officials accuse the rebels of deliberately damaging telecommunications networks, while representatives of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) say Abiy’s administration is unwilling to restore the services it cut.

A spokesperson for Abiy said there was “not a single on/off button or switch” to restore the internet. “Security and administrative arrangements in the Tigray region need to be clarified…to facilitate technical repair work,” the spokesman told reporters last month.

TPLF adviser Fesseha Tessema disputed this. “The question is political, because Addis Ababa does not want to lift the siege and restore services,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

‘THEY LEAVE IT TO GOD’ When popular singer and Oromo activist Hachalu Hundessa was killed in June 2020 in a suburb of the capital, Addis Ababa, the government disconnected the internet across the country as riots and killings escalated. have spread to Oromia and Addis Ababa.

A police crackdown left hundreds dead and a 23-day internet blackout cost the economy more than $100 million, according to NetBlocks, an internet monitoring company. Frehiwot Tamiru, chief executive of the sole telecommunications provider – government-owned Ethio Telecom, said the nationwide shutdown was necessary to prevent the internet from being used by criminals to “kill and displace, create chaos and destroy the country”.

Human rights groups have also criticized the Ethiopian government for shutting down social media and messaging services, including Facebook and WhatsApp, over the past year. Ethiopian authorities have not commented on the closures, but said last year they were developing a local social media platform to “replace” Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

Many ordinary Ethiopians lament the frequent disruptions to their daily lives. Like any 15-year-old, Tolessa loved checking football scores online and messaging friends on his phone, until frequent internet blackouts in his hometown of Oromia made that nearly impossible.

As the war between Ethiopian forces and Oromo Liberation Army rebels escalated in 2019 and 2020, residents used their phones when they could to alert themselves to the approaching fighting – until broadband and mobile internet shut down. “Now it’s all just a bet – they’re relying on God,” said Tolessa, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Fearing for his safety, Tolessa’s family sent him to live with relatives in Addis Ababa about 300 km (185 miles) away, where he now goes to school and hopes to become an engineer. It’s a struggle to stay in touch. “I can only reach some relatives by phone, most of them haven’t been online for months,” he said.

In Tigray, Eyassu Gebreanenia, 24, from Mekelle, said he was able to go online once or twice a month, using Wi-Fi at the office of an international non-profit organization where his friend works. The city was once the region’s bustling business hub, but Gebreanenia said hospitals, hotels and restaurants are closed and people who once owned thriving businesses are now struggling to feed their families.

“It’s like they’ve gone back 30 years,” he said. “People are hurting – but you might not know it because we’re cut off from the world. It’s quite depressing.” Originally posted at: https://www.context.news/digital-rights/six-million-people-in-the-dark-tigrays-two-year-internet-outage

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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