Ethiopia | Update: Internet telephony is legal, in internet cafes too

State Minister of Government Communications, Shimeles Kemal, gave further clarifications on Friday (June 22) in a press conference to local and foreign journalists, regarding the draft Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences which was alleged to ban the use of VOIP – such as Skype and Google Talk.

Responding to a Nigerian journalist who asked if he should worry about using VOIP services on his laptop to contact his family back home, the Minister responded that he got nothing to worry about using IP-based communications, between two computers or between two phones or from computer to a phone. ‘As long as it is internet based’, he added.

The Minister underlined that the draft law is aimed not at personal use rather "for commercial purposes" without license.

He emphasized that the draft law is not aimed at internet based communications, rather the use of the internet to bypass or circumvent the national telecom infrastructure to provide one’s own telecommunication service or commit cyber crimes or telecom frauds.

The draft law is clear and it doesn’t target the use of Skype and other VOIP related services, he added.

In response to a foreign journalist’s question whether there is any requirement or precondition to use VOIP. Minister Shimeles said, ‘there is none, though the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (the telecom regulatory body) has the mandate to set such rules if it deems necessary’. Even in that scenario, it will only be regulate, not criminalize VOIP use.

The Ethiopian law, as it stands, doesn’t prohibit the use of VOIP and the practice confirms that, the Minister said.

The Minister explained the revenue, security and other rationales behind the draft law – which are already stated in the phone interview posted in this blog on Thursday.(click here)

No less important thing is that State media, both TV and Radio services, reported the legality of VOIP use in prime time news. Such announcements are given more weight than the letter of the law in the Ethiopian public.


Minister Shimeles’s statement affirmed, for the second time, what this blog stated last Sunday that ‘[the prohibitions on the ] Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences….concern a business entity providing telephone call (to a landline or mobile phone) and fax services using the internet.’ (see here).

However, he went further by suggesting that it is ok to use VOIP services in internet cafes.

But, this was contradicted by A Week in the Horn, the weekly press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published Friday evening. The press release (see below) indicates that the draft law prohibits the VOIP use in internet cafes.

An officials of the Ministry, told this blog, by phone that ‘I doubt if there is real contradiction [between the two statement], but if there is one, Minister Shimeles’ statement stands [with regard to this issue]’.

That means I will have to post transcripts of Minister Shimeles’s Friday statements in this blog tomorrow.

Status of the Draft law legislation

The Science and Technology Standing Committee of the parliament, which met yesterday, sent back the draft legislation for further clarification, informed sources in the government told this blogger today. The legislation was drafted by the Information Network Security Agency (INSA).

It seems this blog’s initial decision to postpone a thorough review of the draft law, until the parliamentary committee releases an official version of the draft’, was not a bad idea.



* Using VOIP services in Internet Cafes is legal, Minister Shimeles Kemal’s Friday statement underlined. Same was reported in the local newspapers in the weekend as well as FM Radios in the capital. Some of his remarks can be found on this video (here).

* (The title of this post was edited from ‘….perhaps in internet cafes too’ to ‘…in internet cafes too. The full name of INSA have been corrected as well as the orders between para. 8 and 9 in the text above. Thanx)


The truth about Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in Ethiopia

A Week in the Horn – June 22, 2012

The technical phrase, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), literally the use of free or paid telephony service over the Internet, has created a considerable media buzz over the past couple of weeks in news coverage of Ethiopia. The term gained near house- hold usage within a matter of days on what was in fact a totally unfounded, and ridiculous, claim that Ethiopia had banned telephony using Skype, Google talk and other Internet usages in a draconian law passed by parliament. As the news was carried by some major media institutions, including Al Jezeera and the BBC, as well as the more usual offenders, this was sufficient for some to claim that the country had moved further in a downward spiral into areas where its inhabitants are incarcerated incommunicado.

Gallons of ink were spilt over the week to declare Ethiopia as a place where freedom to receive and impart information had been curtailed in a most absolute form. The news went viral with the assistance of the usual social media commentators who seldom bother to check their sources or their information. Self-proclaimed cabals of human rights advocates were quick to label this “eerie” proclamation as the last nail in the coffin of freedom of information. Indeed, the backlash of violent comment from various quarters was shocking, if not entirely surprising, in terms of its magnitude and its fervor to jump onto this extensive smear campaign bandwagon. It is something that has, after all, happened before.

There is only one problem with all of these claims and comments: the whole story is quite simply untrue. Despite all the assumptions made that this was a ‘done deal’, the fact is that the allegations are simply false in their entirety. The whole story, and its
ramifications, is a very clear example of the recklessness of journalists who failed to check even the most basic fact about the alleged proclamation. And that is that the alleged law has not even been considered by the relevant parliamentary committee let alone enacted as law. All that has happened is that a draft version was tabled for discussion. This, it might be noted, means that any changes to unclear provisions can still be made, as can outright changes or revisions.

Secondly, it is also apparent from a reading of the draft (something that few if any commentators appear to have bothered to do) that it does not actually ban usage of voice internet protocol services. Irrespective of possible revisions, the draft proclamation itself doesn’t make any such suggestion and it is hard to see how this can be deduced from the draft. The draft doesn’t suffer from the usual legal problems of obfuscation and lack of clarity. It is actually plain even to the most untrained eye.

The draft’s relevant article 10(3) doesn’t prevent the use of VoIP for personal use. It is all about the use of internet telephony for commercial purposes. The wording of the article which includes references to “whosoever provides” and “five times the revenue” are a clear indication that the provision is aimed to regulate usage of Internet services for commercial use in places known as “Internet cafes”. The provision is, in fact, intended to control service providers, many of whom operate without paying taxes for the revenues generated through these services.

“Article 10 (3). Whosoever provides telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine equal to five times the revenue estimated to have been earned by him during the period of time he provided the service.

10 (4) Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this Article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 2 years and with fine from Birr 2,500 to Birr 20,000”

It is quite clear that these two articles refer to the provision of a business providing telephone calls or fax services over the Internet. It might be added that the legality of banning the independent provision of telephony services is hardly a matter of dispute. The state-owned organization, Ethio Telecom has the unquestioned legal authority over the provision of telephony and Internet services. Any Internet service provision unauthorized by Ethio Telecom is illegal. Nor, it might be added, is this anything new. It was banned by law nearly a decade ago, though there have, in any case, been no reports of any prosecutions from that legislation.

In other words the stories and rumours of the last two or three weeks are, to use a fine Americanism, just plain hogwash, no more, no less.


Previous posts:
Official: ‘Skype and similar activities are not banned in Ethiopia’ (Thur., June 21)
Skype me? Indeed! | Text of Ethiopia’s draft Telecom Law (Sun., June 17)

Check the Ethio Telecom archive or the Human Rights archive for related posts.

Daniel Berhane