Netizen Report: Authorities shut down mobile internet in Ethiopia’s capital, as ethnic and political conflict persist

Protest in Ethiopia's Oromo region, 2016. Photo from Abdi Lemessa's Facebook page. Used with permission.

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Just five months into the administration of Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, protests rooted in ethnic conflict and the administration of land rights policies have once again taken Addis Ababa by storm and led to the deaths of at least 20 people.

On September 17, in what appeared to be an effort to quell social unrest, mobile internet networks were shut down across the capital city. Ethio Telecom, the country’s sole, government-owned internet and phone service provider, did not offer any public statement about the shutdown.

Abiy Ahmed came into office in April 2018 after nearly three years of mass protests, ethnic conflict and violent military interventions in some regions of the country. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn voluntarily resigned from office in February 2018 after his once-ruling coalition had splintered beyond repair, opening the window of possibility for Ahmed’s election.

Hailed as a reformer, the new prime minister has ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners, removed top-level police and security officials from the previous regime and worked to rekindle relations with Eritrea. He also lifted the country’s state of emergency, which had been in place intermittently since 2015.

The resurgence of protests and corresponding internet shutdown, both hallmarks of public life under the previous regime, have raised fears that Ahmed's efforts to restore peace and uphold human rights in the country are already faltering.

Reacting to the shutdown, activist and former prisoner of conscience Atnaf Berhane tweeted about the irony of this move on the part of the new government:

Kazakh police break up fact-checking workshop to arrest journalist

Ukrainian journalist Aleksandr Gorokhovsky was arrested in the northwestern Kazakh city of Uralsk while he was training a group of Kazakh journalists in fact-checking methods. The workshop was organized by regional newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, that has long been the target of state harassment, due in part to its precarious position near the Kazakh-Russian border, where there are strong political currents of pro-Moscow sentiment. Gorokohovsky was fined two days later by a local court, where the public prosecutor argued that when entering Kazakhstan, Gorokhovsky had failed to indicate who had invited him to the country on his migration form

With ethnic tensions rising, how will Facebook affect Cameroon’s elections?

The Cameroonian government is targeting the spread of misinformation online with presidential elections approaching on October 7. Online campaigns promoting ethnic violence have become a growing force in Cameroon’s internal conflict, where a separatist movement in English-speaking areas has led to clashes between armed separatists and military forces, with military attacks on Anglophone villages forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. For 230 days in 2017 and 2018, Anglophone regions of Cameroon also suffered one of the longest continuous internet shutdowns known to have occurred on the continent.

Cameroonian officials recently met with Facebook over concerns that the platform poses a threat to public security as calls for ethnic violence continue to spread on the platform.

Writing for Quartz Africa, Amindeh Blaise Atabong questioned whether the officials may have other additional motives: Facebook has been used to share videos that local experts say depict Cameroonian soldiers killing unarmed civilians in the separatist regions, and that the government may have hopes of blocking this material.

Malaysia’s ‘anti-fake news’ law may not last

Malaysia’s Senate blocked an attempt by the lower house of Parliament to repeal the country’s “Anti-Fake News Law”, which penalizes the distribution of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” with fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (USD $123,000) or a maximum sentence of six years in prison. The law has been criticized by a group of UN special rapporteurs for enabling restrictions on freedom of expression, and its repeal was one of the election priorities of the recently elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It will now return to the lower house for another vote.

Google’s China strategy will include plenty of censorship — and surveillance

After leaving the Chinese market in 2010, citing human rights concerns, Google is now preparing to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. The “Dragonfly” app would automatically identify and censor websites like Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, BBC, Global Voices and many others that are currently blocked in China, and remove Google search results that government officials deem sensitive.

According to new findings by The Intercept, the app will also link users’ searches to their personal phone numbers so that the company (and presumably Chinese state officials) can monitor their queries. This reinforces the concerns of a coalition of 14 human rights groups expressed in an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai that the storage of Google data in China could make users’ data vulnerable to government surveillance, and could make Google complicit in human rights violations.

European Court says UK surveillance programs violated human rights

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s mass surveillance programs violate the right to privacy and freedom of expression. The ruling, which responds to a challenge brought by organizations including Amnesty international and Privacy International, found that the programs lacked sufficient oversight for how data is collected and violated human rights doctrine and laws. It fell short of stating that the existence of a bulk data collection scheme would itself be in violation of the law.

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