Last March, on the bi-monthly press conference, when the BBC journalist asked Premier Meles Zenawi, after noting the signal interferences on the VOA Amharic service in the earlier three weeks, whether he ‘know(s) anything about it and why it is happening’, he was certainly expecting a categorical denial. Because, that was the response journalists received from the State Minister of Government Communications Bureau just a few weeks before.

However, the Premier surprised everyone, except his colleagues, by giving an ‘I wish if I could’ sort reply:

The formal process of jamming will come if and when they prove that they[the concerned officials] have the capacity to do it. ….But I assure you, if they assure me at some future date that they have the capacity to jam it, then I will then give them a clear guideline to jam it. But so far there has not been that formal decision to jam, but has been a formal decision to beef up our capacity to jam. …..they may have been testing the equipments they have for jamming.

Years before that, on a couple of occasions, VOA alleged government jamming, which the latter denied while pointing at the malicious contents of the radio. In fact, the government even sought to prosecute two staff of the radio, but an Ethiopian court dismissed the charges. So what’s changed now? The answer is in the Premier’s statement: ‘we’ve given up on the objectivity and professionalism of the VOA service in Ethiopia. We have for sometime now been trying to beef up our capacity to deal with it including through jamming.’ The Premier’s admission of the jamming, albeit a hypothetical one, came after acquiring the technological capability to jam selectively and effectively, so as to warrant a bold statement. Because, an official admission of ineffective and imprecise jamming would only serve to popularize the targeted radio while providing ground to complaints that may be lodged from other ‘incidentally’ affected radio stations.

Dismayingly what followed the Premier’s statement was the same old debate on whether VOA is ‘indispensable for Ethiopian democracy’ or a ‘destabilizing force’.

What’s to come on the internet filtering issue is likely to be reminiscent of the VOA episode. As explained in-detail in my previous post, the government is moving off from the crude web filtering methods that caused the over blocking and strong criticisms of the past years. Thus, it may not be long before we hear a bold official statement asserting the government’s right and intent to block destabilizing sites. Perhaps, such a bold official statement is awaiting for the next journalist to bring up the issue.

Predictably, whether a confirmatory official statement comes or not, western media and institutions will cry foul as soon as internet freedom watchdogs corroborate my observations. They wont waste time before calling donors to take action. And, the Ethiopian opposition media and politicians will follow suit as they find it politically expedient to categorically condemn the internet filtering. That is to be expected, given the unwritten accord of the opposition parties and media outlets not to criticize each other. Such moves may at best succeed in soliciting statements of ‘raised concern’ from a few western officials. Yet, they are unlikely to sway the Ethiopian government.

The vicious cycle of categorical condemnation and categorical denial

Judged from PR angle, the government’s choosing to categorically deny the allegations of internet filtering is not entirely unjustified. Because, a statement admitting and justifying the filtering may only serve to reinforce the condemnations, since none of the concerned western organizations would bother to weigh the justifications by taking a look at the contents of the blocked sites. Despite their organizational stature and their fondness to terms like ‘research’, ‘fact finding mission’, etc, it is an established fact that, due to political bias and cost-efficiency, western right activists would simply echo allegations without taking a look into the matter, when it involves an African government.

Take kinijit.org, a site often cited, by internet watchdogs, as a victim of ‘politically motivated filtering.’ It may be too much to ask these western organizations to look at the contents of the site. However, they could have easily referred to the indictment on the site by their favorite politician Birtukan Mideksa in a public statement at the end of 2007 in Minneapolis, USA, shortly after her first release on pardon.

As you can see in the video, Bertukan Mideksa condemned the site for its repulsive and ethnically divisive contents. It was a meeting co-chaired by the former leaders of CUD, Dr. Birhanu Nega, now Chair of Ginbot 7, and Eng. Gizachew Shiferaw, now leader of Andinet/Medrek(UDJ) Party, and attended by their supporters in USA.

[Watch video]

One may consider Birtukan’s statement as a blame transfer and a shrewd attempt to blacked the other CUD faction led by Eng. Hailu Shawel, whom the site supports. Whatever the motive, Birtukan’s statement indisputably supports the government’s implicit position concerning the website.

In fact, the hypocrisy of the calls for an end to filtering and unbridled access to the web becomes evident when one notes the double-standard applied.

Right activists hardly criticize South Korea for blocking ‘pro-North Korea sites’ (meaning: communist sites), instead they see it as a filtering motivated by ‘security concerns’. On the contrary, they consider Ethiopia’s blockade of sites officially affiliated with the Eritrean government as ‘politically motivated’ filtering.

Blocking neo-Nazi and Holocaust deniers sites, in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc., doesn’t undermine their democracy, while destabilizing and genocidal sites are deemed essential for Ethiopia’s democracy.

Few question India’s decision to block  websites of militant groups(Kashmir insurgents), or they consider it as a legitimate attempt to mitigate domestic conflict. Yet, Ethiopia is urged to make sites owned by, or dedicated to, insurgent groups accessible .

Of course, the renowned human right organizations have yet to let us know their position on the attacks against Wikileaks website.

Indeed, as international studies indicate, internet filtering is employed not only to limit political expression, to prevent hate speeches, and to mitigate security threats(insurgents, terrorists, extremists, etc). They are also used to ward off religious conversion as in the middle east, for ‘social filtering’ (on pornographic, gambling, etc. sites), to protect intellectual property, to block internet tools(networking tools and applications that enable users to obtain/share contents of blocked sites) and to protect the business interests of telecom companies from web-based free or low-cost communication service providers(like Skype). Obviously, some of these objectives are evidently unacceptable.

Thus, a categorical condemnation of Ethiopia’s internet filtering would only be hypocritical. As there may be few places, if any, where users enjoy unbridled access to the web, to begin with. In deed, the real difference between nations appears to be only the stage at which the filtering takes place – at national level, at the level of  service providers or at the level of institutions.

Yet, this is not merely an argument for fairness, but also one for efficacy. Because, the unqualified bashing does little, if any, to convince the government change course.

First, such an inconsiderate and ideological bashing naturally undermines positive response from the subject of the criticism. Second, the government would be forced to maintain the denial, since admitting the filtering and trying to justify it would only be amount to providing ammunition to its detractors. More over, the government, while officially denying the filtering, can effectively defend the same when discussing the matter in diplomatic circles and with its political constituency by pointing that its being asked to lift blockades on insurgent groups’ websites. Indeed, as the US Embassy cable published last month by Wikileaks revealed, the State Department doesn’t even deem it appropriate for its staff to meet insurgent groups’ members even in Foggy Bottom, let alone demand their sites be made accessible to the Ethiopian public.

On the reverse side, the government’s categorical denial may in turn fuel the categorically condemnations. Because, in the absence of justifications from the government, the right activists will find it cost-effective to echo the allegation and condemnation. Admittedly, they may still refuse to consider even if the governments’ presented its case, as it was seen in the VOA case. It should be noted that no right group bothered to demand an internal inquiry report from the VOA, though its Director, Danforth Austin, admitted to have received formal complains from the Ethiopian government. Yet, the possibility that some of the rights organizations and media outlets may be tempted to consider the governments’ case for blocking when it concerns sites owned by Ethiopians can not be ruled out.

In sum, while the current approach might be tactful in the PR arena, it falls short of constitutional concerns.

Where are the guidelines?

Despite all the media circus and debates for and against the jamming of VOA, some one has still to ask the Premier about the guidelines. Those ‘clear guidelines to jam’ that he pledged to give to the concerned officials. Presumably, those guidelines are not technical manuals rather indicative of the criteria and/or the responsible body for the jamming.

By the same token, the discourse on the internet filtering should focus on the need for a clear and official guideline. In fact, it is the existence of those guidelines and the criteria therein that determines the Constitutionality of the filtering.

But what would such guidelines would look like? The answer is to be found nowhere but in the most liberal article of the Constitution.

On Art 29 – Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression; after acknowledging the ‘freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice’ and after prohibiting ‘any form of censorship’ as part of the ‘freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity’; the Constitution states:

29(6) These rights can be limited only through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honor and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity shall be prohibited by law.

Yes, the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas can be limited. But how? Through laws, issued by the Parliament and/or by the Council of Ministers. On what ground? ‘to protect the well-being of the youth, the honor and reputation of individuals, to prevent propaganda for war, and to prevent a public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity’.

But that is not all. When the government issues such restricting laws, it should be ‘guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed’.

Thus, it is not the filtering, or not filtering per se, that makes it constitutional but whether the act fulfils the above-stated requirements.

Thus far, there are no laws issued by the parliament or the Council of Ministers providing a legal framework for regulating the internet. In fact, the only law proximate to the matter is the proclamation (No. 360/2003 ) issued to establish the Ethiopian Information and Communication Technology Development Authority (ICTDA). The proclamation authorizes ICTDA, in Art. 6(2), to ‘Advice and support the concerned organs to protect violations of social and individual constitutional rights that may be caused by the use of the technology, and to deter and offset national security problems that may arise from the utilization of information and communication technology’.

While it appears ICTDA is to give ‘advice and support’ to ‘the concerned organs’ on how to avert the adverse effects of Information Technology, there is no law that indicates who those organs are and how they make use of the ‘advice and support’.

Misled be not. This no mere abstract procedural question, rather of practical significance. Because, it is only in the presence of a transparent framework that there could be an opportunity to weight, and appeal, the blockade on a given site.

Let me make it even clearer:

In the first week of July, I accidentally noticed that there is a problem with one of my posts – either it takes longer time to open or not open at all. Mind you, all other pages on my blog were working fine but one – ‘AddisNeger-when deceit becomes the norm. I checked using other computers and modems to no avail. Fortunately, the problem disappear by the en of the week or so.(Trust me, I am very good at recalling dates) Yet, i didn’t fail to notice that the url of the post contains ‘addisneger’. I also noticed it was in the same period that visiting the facebook page of addisneger and accessing blocked sites on google webcache became increasingly difficult.

That was when I started reading about internet filtering technologies.

Again, last month, on December 4th, I encountered similar problem when I posted the first US Embassy cable leaked by Wikileaks. Just minutes after I posted the cable I encountered difficulty to open the page, while my friend in Sweden who was online at that time was able to. Stupid me, the url of the post contains the word ‘wikileaks’. [I removed the word ‘wikileaks’ from the title, but the problem persisted, since the url is still the same.] Thus, ascertain its accessibility to everyone, I had to post it again but with a different title, thus without ‘wikileaks’ on its url. Ultimately, after 3 or 4 days, the problem with the first post disappeared .

It was fortunate that whoever assigned to the task diligently checked out the filtering doesn’t cause ‘over-blocking’. But where could I have gone if otherwise? In fact, with the second case, I am not even certain which country did it, since wikileaks had been under attack from US & European countries. Indeed, it is also likely that wordpress itself, as a US based organization, could be the cause.

The bottom line

The bottom line is it is highly doubtful that if all the sites currently inaccessible in Ethiopia do truly deserve to be made so. But it would be difficult to judge and seek remedy where the criteria and the responsible organ is unknown. And, the possibility this opens for corruption can not be overstated.

Thus, I urge the government to make the process transparent and the discourse to focus on the need for clear guidelines rather than ideological demands.

*********

Notes

1. It should be noted that Art 29 of the Constitution is placed under Part – II, Democratic Rights, which is said to be political rights and provided for Ethiopian citizens. Moreover, the prohibition on censorship refers to pre-publishing censorship, in the Amharic version which is the final and authoritative version.

2. I transcribed and put here the full text of the above-cited statement of the Premier on the press conference on March 17/2010, since it is unavailable on the web:

BBC correspondent:
I came from BBC, I mentioned earlier,  I like to ask for equal time for VOA. The Amharic service has been jammed for the past three weeks. And I would like to ask the Tigrinya program is not being jammed, the Oromiffa program is not being jammed, but in the middle the Amharic service is being  jammed. Do you anything about it and why it is happening?

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:
If we were to prevent VOA from broadcasting in Ethiopia, we would simply be following the letter of the law in Unites States. But that is beside the point. The main point is what the VOA Amharic service has been engaged in for the past 18 years. We have been convinced for many years now  that in many respects the VOA Amharic service have copied the worst practices radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard for minimum ethics of journalism and engaged in destabilizing propaganda.

We have from time to time provided files and files of evidence to the concerned US authorities about it, we have from time to time been promised they will do something about it. But we have not seen anything being done about it to correct it. Indeed, we know the officials including true blooded Americans being rooted out from the VOA if and when they try to correct its violations. [Thus] we have given up on the objectivity and professionalism of the VOA service in Ethiopia.

We have for sometime now been trying to beef up our capacity to deal with it including through jamming. I am not sure yet we have build that capacity. But there are guidelines given to the concerned officials to build up that capacity. I understand they are closed to achieving the capacity.

In that regard, they may have been testing their capacity to [inaudible]. But there was not formal process of jamming. The formal process of jamming will come if and when they prove that they have the capacity to do it. As far as I know that is still not proved. You seem to believe that they been effective in jamming it, the information I get is different. We haven’t been that effective in jamming it. [For] we need to now that before we make the decision to jam it, whether we have the capacity to do it.

But I assure you, if they assure me at a future date that they have the capacity to jam it, then I will then give them a clear guideline to jam it. But so far there has not been that formal decision to jam, but has been a formal decision to beef up our capacity to jam. And as far as [that] decision they may have been testing the equipments they have for jamming.

******

References(partial list)
1/ As ACTA talks resume, new leak confirms fears about threat to online free expression; Reporters Sans Frontières

2/ Banday M.T., Shah N.A. (2010). A concise study of web filtering. Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Systems, 10(31)
3/ Documentation of Internet Filtering Worldwide, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, Harvard University.
4/ Leaked Cables reveal: VOA serves Political Agenda and ‘Eccentric & elusive Intel chief with US Ambassador: Leaked US Embassy Cable Addis Ababa; Daniel Berhane
5/ Open Net initiative; Internet Filtering in Ethiopia in 2006-2007
6/ Three more sites unaccessible, government denies being involved; Reporters Sans Frontières
7/ Tools and Technology of Internet Filtering, Steven J. Murdoch and Ross Andersong
8/ Wikileaks: 07TALLINN375, Estonia cyber attacks: lessons learned
9/ Wikileaks: 09STATE67105, Diplomatic security daily
10/ VOA Director Danforth Austin; An Open Letter to Ethiopian Listeners on World Press Freedom Day [May 3/2010]
11/ Web sites sharing IP addresses: Prevalence and significance

Daniel Berhane

Daniel Berhane

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