Ethiopia has joined a list of other nations including neighboring Uganda, Ghana, among others in a bid to control the effects of the usage of such platforms by masses. While the aforementioned countries decided to clamp down social media for civil reasons, Ethiopia’s move was motivated by a need to prevent students being distracted.
The move comes after university entrance exams were canceled earlier due to exam leakages which were spread online. In response to this, the government has blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber.
The social platforms will not be available until Wednesday when the exams are expected to be over, a government spokesman said.
“It's a temporary measure until Wednesday. Social media have proven to be a distraction for students,” said spokesman Getachew Reda.
In a country where there has been a history of traditional media being tightly controlled by the government, many have resorted to using social media to pass on and access information critical of the leadership. With such precedent, many people are not taking the latest clampdown lightly.
An Ethiopian journalist told the BBC that the crackdown “was just the beginning.”
“The government here is very keen to control social media,” he said. “They will learn from this, next time there is a protest they will use the experience to do another nationwide clampdown,” the local journalist who did not want to be named for security reason added.
Ethiopia was among the first African countries to censor the internet and its usage by human rights activist and bloggers. In 2012, the country restricted voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls, leading to the shutdown of Skype. Users were threatened with a 15-year jail term.
While this is not the first time the internet has gone down in the country, this is the first time social media sites have been openly blocked in the whole country. In the past, social media sites went down for a while, but they were later restored, with the government denouncing any involvement.
Many view this as a bad precedent that could be used at a later date to oppress Ethiopians. Daniel Berhane the editor of Horn Affairs magazine told AFP that “this is a dangerous precedent.” He added that the lack of transparency around the matter is an issue of big concern. “There is no transparency about who took the decision and for how long. This time, it is for a few days, but next time it might be for a month.”
Ethiopian laws give the government power over the media and allow it to take desired actions to limit communication between Ethiopians. A proposed legislation which seeks to criminalize spamming is dreaded to be an indirect way of censoring activists and journalists online.
Prior to this, other legislations such as the Mass Media and Freedom of International Proclamation of 2008 and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009, which are also believed to be oppressive of the internet have been witnessed in the country.
Ethiopia is borrowing from Algeria which also temporarily shut down its social media, in what it called an attempt to impede exam cheating, as papers were being shared online. In May, pictures of the university entrance exams were circulated on social media, leading to the cancellation of the assessment.
A senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, Deji Olukotun believes that the act of countrywide blockage of social media due to leaked questions is “completely disproportionate” because “shutdowns like this impact broader society as a whole—businesses lose a lot of money, journalists can’t report the news and it creates a culture of impunity.”