Abel Wabella is no stranger to the dangers of pursuing digital activism in Ethiopia.
In 2014 he was charged under a controversial anti-terrorism law, which has been described as providing the state with “unnecessarily far-reaching powers” by Amnesty International.
Wabella spent over a year in jail because of his role as co-founder of Zone9, a blogging collective that highlighted human rights abuses, corruption and political repression in the country.
It wasn’t until 2018, during a period of mass reform and resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, that the final charges were dropped against the group’s members.
“When Abiy Ahmed came to power, he released journalists, re-branding the country as one with a bright future,” Wabella said.
As well as freeing journalists, Prime Minister Abiy also released political prisoners, unblocked hundreds of websites, and appointed women to half of his cabinet posts.
The changes were part of a new agenda, which he pledged would respect freedom of expression. “In a democratic system, the government allows citizens to express their ideas freely without fear,” he said in April 2018.
During the past month, however, there have been several nationwide internet blackouts, leaving friends and families disconnected, businesses unable to operate, and journalists prevented from reporting on events.
Recent developments have left many in Ethiopia skeptical about the durability and sincerity of Abiy’s reforms. Atnaf Brhane, a fellow co-founder of Zone9, said that the internet shutdowns had created “a bad record for a ‘reformist’ leader.”
CNN made several attempts to reach the Ethiopian government but did not get a response.
The most recent internet blackout began on Saturday, June 22 after reports of an attempted coup in the Amhara region. After 100 hours without internet access, the network was gradually restored, although it wasn’t until July 2 that mobile data finally returned.
There was no formal explanation from the government but the state-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, the country’s lone telecoms provider, issued an apology and told CNN at the time the company would credit customers for services that were affected during the shutdown.
The shutdown followed another blackout earlier in June. The disruptions combined have meant that Ethiopians did not have reliable connections for almost half the month.
A return to old habits
As of the time of publishing, complete access is yet to be restored as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and some VPN apps remain blocked by the government.
The continued blocks represent a significant barrier to freedom of expression and the right to information. In fact, “in Ethiopia, Facebook is basically equal to the internet,” Wabella, who now runs the media outlet, Addis Zaybe, said.
He added the shutdown forced him to close his offices for over a week, preventing him from publishing any new stories or publicizing their work on social media.
It was not just digital media that were affected, however. During the shutdown, businesses were forced to close, events were canceled, and families were unable to communicate. Popular taxi service ZayRide was also affected by the shutdown, leaving their drivers with no work for a week.
Combined, the effect of internet shutdowns on the economy is staggering. According to the internet monitoring NGO, Netblocks, each day of an internet blackout costs the Ethiopian government nearly $4.5million.
Additionally, it prevented families from communicating during the attempted coup, which made it a particularly dangerous and sensitive time. As, the executive director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia said: “People want to know the well-being and safety of their family… the internet shutdown is putting people in fear again.”
Nevertheless, many digital rights activists believe the government will continue to restrict access to the internet during politically sensitive moments as previous governments have.
“Since 2016, the government of Ethiopia has had a habit of shutting down the internet whenever there is political unrest or demonstration [and] after a few months the new administration took office they returned to their old habit,” Brhane said.
Internet kill switch
Governments around the world are increasingly reaching for the internet kill switch. In the past few months alone, there have been internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. While in Africa, internet shutdowns are also being employed more frequently by governments.
Internet shutdowns were a regular occurrence under Ethiopia’s former premier Hailemariam Desalegn and, despite Abiy’s promises to protect freedom of expression, there have already been several such disruptions during his short reign.
The first widespread disruption occurred just months after his inauguration following an outbreak of violence in the eastern cities of Jijiga, Dire Dawa and Harar.
During the blackout, citizens were heavily reliant on state media, which effectively allowed the regime to control the narrative surrounding the attempted coup.
It is a move that is highly reminiscent of Desalegn’s tight control of the media in which, according to Human Rights Watch, there was a “strategy to manage and control information flows, including the media, and ensure that its policies are promoted but not critiqued.”
Additionally, during the shutdowns, there were reports of journalists charged under the same anti-terror legislation used in the Zone9 cases, once more indicating a potential return to a regime that uses controversial anti-terrorism law and internet shutdowns to stifle freedom of expression.
Activists such as Wabella now fear that recent developments will prompt a further deterioration in freedom of expression in the country. “Things are unfortunately making the future look very bleak,” he said.
As internet access slowly returns across the country, people are finally able to tell their stories of how the disruptions impacted them. “The internet is part of our lifestyle not just our jobs,” Wabella said. “It had a huge impact on the entire community.”