Human Rights Watch calls on Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize winning dictator Abiy Ahmed to restore internet and phone services in Oromia

This article was updated to reflect that Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is no longer under the control of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) even though it used to be the military wing of OLF.

The Ethiopian government should immediately lift the shutdown of internet and phone communications in the Oromia region, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. 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 respected human rights organization added in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, communication blackouts without government justifications has become “routine”.

“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.”

Human Rights Watch said 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 Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The media have credibly reported human rights abuses, including accounts of killings and mass detentions by government forces.

However, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is no longer under the control of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) even though it used to be the military wing of OLF.

TODAY NEWS AFRICA was told that when OLF was invited back to engage in non violent struggle in 2018, the Oromia state government refused to welcome OLA and integrate them to the regional law enforcement unlike what was done in the Amhara, and the Ethiopian Somali states.

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.”

Human Rights Watch quoted one university lecturer as saying: “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.

According to HRW, 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 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.”

Human Rights Watch added that 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”

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Simon Ateba
Simon Ateba
Based in Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, Simon leads a brilliant team of reporters, freelance journalists, analysts, researchers and contributors from around the world to run TODAY NEWS AFRICA as editor-in-chief. Simon Ateba's journalistic experience spans over 10 years and covers many beats, including business and investment, information technology, politics, diplomacy, human rights, science reporting and much more. Write him: [email protected]

32 COMMENTS

  1. Ethiopian dictator leadership prime minister Abiy Ahmed!
    His not cheating The country only,he is cheating world and African continent!

    In our country Ethiopian is right now no peace , no life, and No divelopment , nation as darkest!!
    We request the world Nobel winners dictator abiy Ahmed to return Nobel price to the world continents!
    Thanks

  2. How come you say dictator for a pm who was loved by most Ethiopians & just only 2 yrs in power ? What a well paid article 🤣🤣😛

  3. This is a FALSE story written by TPLF, go to human rights watch website and check. They actually praise him.

  4. Dear fellow oromo people don’t believe this bs story, may be it’s TRUE but think of the timing. “Human rights watch ” is now calling abiy a dictator now than he won’t sign the EGYPT deal, they are playing us people. They don’t care about us this is all so they America can use it against him as leverage to make him sign the Nile deal which hurts Ethiopia, us oromos too. Please dont listen, support Jawar or olf or ola if you want but human right watch is not our friend it’s the enemy.

  5. Thank you for the report. More 20 million Oromo ppl under attack right now by the dictator military plus Deadly disease Covid19, through information black out. This must be exposed to the world community and must be condemned by every mankind

  6. Thank you for covering this highly critical issue. An irresponsible infant dictator has been repressing human rights and access to information since he came to power. Keep your great work!

  7. From the beginning this Administration has no place for People rutherthan schedule to stay in power for longer period as usual of his predecessors, this hope force him to blockout the communications in Oromia. He and his fellows are happy by doing this blockout for more than two months. As well as, He and his fellows haven’t the place to respect thé rule of law and human right.

  8. Due to disconnect of internet and communication our families at west oromiya of Ethiopia are under attack so if there is no solution in near time we ask let we come become one country with our negbor Sudan

  9. We are far from our family we can not hear our parent problem my mother is in siriese sick at wes oromiya

  10. There were/still are hateful posts on social media about different ethnic groups. No one can deny that. Brother was fighting against brother. It was doing a lot of harm. PM Abiy supporter or not, this should not be done.

    And Hambisa Belina, no need to call anyone an “idiot” here. Try to be civil.

  11. Abiyi Ahmed is the list killer in the world currently. No more patience on his massive killing, abuse of human and democratic rights of the people (OROMO) and opposition party. He has/ have to pay for what he has done at Ethiopian and Oromos people as well. Therefore, “”Human rights watch””We need your special attention in cooperating with Amnesty International once more.

  12. He is doing his best for the country, what was decided is after measuring the merits and demerits of the action! OLA is acting as a terorist for the region and even for the country if not controlled! Abichu is a democratic leader of the time for Ethiopia.

  13. Why don’t you report more on why Internet was shut down? It was because there were many posts on hate and ethnic division. And people simply believe the messages and move to violence.

  14. Their are many problems in oromia more than what you have written on this report. Please it needs more investgation on the cases they are killing civilians and innocent people especially in eastern oromia and guji in day to day.

  15. Lydu,
    Make some more research on what is going on in Ethiopia before “wildly” accusing the reporter. Yes, Abiy cheated the Ethiopian people the first few months giving the impression that he was “different” from other African dictators. But gradually he slided back to the same routine that Meles and Mengistu were doing and in a short span of time became the worst of the two.

  16. The information presented and the characterization of PM Abiy as dictator is correct. He rode the people revolt to come to power. He took few good moves in the first three months of ascending to power. Once he consolidated his power, he resorted to his predecessors ways. Unless something is done and Abiy is removed from power, he is going to go the way of African dictators such as Idi Amin, Mengistu Hailemariam, Melees Zenawi, etc.

    The unfortunate thing is that there are always sellouts and useful idiots who support such powers and blame the victims and those who expose the criminals in power.

  17. He is a dictatorship than any one ……. for more than 2 months we haven’t get a chance to talk to our family

  18. yes!!! the world comminute must stop this dictotor goverement from harresemment of human right and killing massive opposite part people without any crime they do . the nobel peace prize commite have to cancelle and restore this prize from him which is not deserve for him, abiy abus th human and democratic right of people(especially OROMO) than any past ethiopian government and kings ,in generally he have to pay for what he has done at ethiopian people .

  19. The PM is much caring for his own political business; Thus the people of Ethiopia aren’t sure that about their daily life!

  20. A dictator: a person who rules a country with total authority and often in a cruel or brutal way (Merriam-Webster). Is that who PM Abiy is? News should give unbiased information. You have the obligation to report current events as accurately as possible but branding the leader as a dictator is wildly inaccurate.

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