Why communication blackout in Ethiopia is a very bad idea

On the surface, it seems like a very convenient idea. Wherever there are protests against the government, the first thing is to silence the people and impose media restrictions or a complete media blackout. In the long run, however, as the case in Ethiopia has shown, it is a very bad idea.

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Digital connectedness and fixed-line telephone services are critical components to keeping displaced families connected and international development and aid coordination running smoothly during Ethiopia’s conflict. Despite this need, it’s one common deficit described repeatedly from the people I’ve spoken to and throughout media reports on the web. Some people lay out a case for having consistent, open, and accessible communication for peaceful reasons. Others are concerned about disinformation and opposition groups distorting the truth using video, audio, and the web to create more chaos and prolong the conflict. 

Ethiopia's Ethio Telecom is cooperating with the federal government restricting services on-demand.
Ethiopia’s Ethio Telecom is cooperating with the federal government restricting services on-demand.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reported on January 8, 2021, that the Ethiopian government began restricting telephone and internet services to the Tigray region, hours after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response to a Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regime ambush on the national military. These restrictions, slowly being lifted, are still heavily monitored and restricted, and not accessible to the masses. 

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Access Now, an information rights group, indicating the region had been closed for what was labeled a “six-month State of Emergency.” “The government of Ethiopia has again shut down the internet. Mobile network, fixed-line internet, and landline telephony have been cut in Tigray,” access Now said

Human Rights Watch spokespersons reported the conflict in the Tigray region had taken place in a virtual blackout. “A lengthy communications shutdown, and the closure of roads and air access, has meant only a trickle of information has come out. Parties to the conflict have primarily controlled the news and narratives.” 

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Communication blackouts can’t be completely blamed on the government’s intentional manipulation. Even where they’ve allowed full communication to return, destroyed infrastructure from the fighting is preventing speedy access.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said this week: “Some damaged communication infrastructure in the region have started working while others were being repaired so that internet communication services can also be restored.”

Ethiopians are Watching, Listening, Communicating 

The way communities perceive technology as part of a sociotechnical system influences how societies behave in a natural disaster or large-scale crises such as terror attacks or a coup. The public’s intense attention and demand for information about the Ethiopian crisis creates competition among information sources and encourage political and social shaping.

When governments block communication infrastructure, people find ways to move messages and work around it more intensely than if it were readily available. Citizens act as witnesses, recalling things that happened days and weeks prior because they couldn’t convey information in real-time. These communication outcomes can backfire on withholding methods of communication. 

Technology is part of crisis information solutions that shouldn’t be ignored. Still, there is a counterbalance of social norms and institutional objectives required to fully understand the influences that restructuring other people’s information into single narratives can have on citizens, politics, and economics.

The United Nations is Watching, Listening, but Treading Cautiously

The United Nations Security Council has remained largely mute on the Tigray conflict with no formal statement calling for de-escalation, no dispatch of the secretary-general’s envoy for the Horn of Africa, and no signal to others in the region of the potential consequences of further misdeeds.

During a Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General stated on 8 January 2021 that “According to the Southern Tigray mission, life in Alamata, Mehoni and Mekelle is gradually returning to normal, with the resumption of some basic services, including electricity and telecommunications. Infrastructure also needs to be urgently restored as many buildings, including schools, hospitals, and administrative offices, have been looted and damaged. Our colleagues continue to engage with the government for the unrestricted and safe passage of humanitarian personnel and supplies to all parts of the Tigray Province.” 

The United States of America is Watching, Listening, and Ignoring

We’ve not heard much from the United States since the onset of the crisis. President-Elect Joseph Biden’s team should take note and make a strategic review of the entire Horn of Africa, looking at new social, political, economic and security realities, largely ignored by the Trump Administration, along with the significantly expanded high-level and frequent involvement of foreign competitors in the region.

Facing bureaucratic fault lines head-on will show renewed importance to key African regions and fully realize American interests and opportunities across the continent, such as Ethiopia, the second most populated country in Africa with geographical touchpoints to America’s biggest competitors.

China is Watching, Listening, and Planning

China is Ethiopia’s largest trading partner, source of investment, and development partner. Therefore China has a large ex-pat population in the country. The South China Morning Post reported that around 600 Chinese citizens evacuated at the onset of the Tigray Region crisis in mid-November.

Ethiopia is described as “China in Africa,” heavily invested in Ethiopia’s textile, pharmaceutical, construction and manufacturing industries. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, by the end of June 2020, Ethiopia approved over 1,500 investment projects from China, amounting to around $2.7 billion, accounting for 25% of Ethiopia’s total direct investment projects last year.

One would think China is not interested in seeing a destabilized Ethiopia. China is most likely supporting and recognizing the government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as long as it believes he will be a willing and productive partner moving forward.

Communication Brings Transparency, Peace, and Growth

Without a thriving communication system, societies block fully realizing their potential. This is not the first time Ethiopia has turned off the internet, blocked cellular signals, or created intentional blackouts, but it should be the last. To prove transparency to global partners there needs to be open access to information. To have peace people need to communicate. To support and sustain growth in a way that allows citizens to compete in a globally connected world, connectivity is absolutely required.

A strong Ethiopia is a digitally connected Ethiopia.

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