Ethiopians who post statuses on Facebook about the country’s growing political unrest could face up to five years in jail, as part of a series of measures under a “state of emergency” that grow more stringent by the day. The government has imposed the longest blanket ban on mobile internet services in the capital Addis Ababa since protests began a year ago, and access to messaging platforms like WhatsApp has been heavily restricted.
The measures are designed to stifle people’s ability to organise protests, amid calls for greater political freedoms and recognition from the ethnic Oromo and Amharic groups. Access to foreign-based media has also been restricted, including Deutsche Welle and Voice of America, which both have popular Amharic stations. Two TV stations run from the US for the Ethiopian diaspora, ESAT and the Oromia Media Network, have been banned.
And the new rules even seek to ban people from carrying out certain gestures “without permission”. They include crossing arms above the head to form an “X”, a political symbol that has become synonymous with the Oromo struggle and featured at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
UK rights charities are particularly concerns that under the emergency rules, which are expected to be in place for the next six months, foreign diplomats will have their movements heavily restricted. The government says diplomats are not allowed to travel more than 40km (25 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa, without permission, and say it is for their own safety.
But the rights group Reprieve told The Independent there are serious concerns this could limit the access Britons have to consular services. They raised the case of one UK citizen, father-of-three Andy Tsege, who is on Ethiopia’s death row and held at a jail some way outside the capital.
Ethiopia is a key strategic ally for the US and European countries in the fight against Somalia’s Islamist insurgency, al-Shabaab, and Addis Ababa is the home of the African Union. The global importance of the country’s stability has meant Western governments turning a blind eye to its authoritarian leadership. In June, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front cut off nationwide access to social media – on the grounds of preventing exam result leaks.
The new ban on internet services has already made a noticeable impact on the flow of reports of unrest coming out of the country via on-the-ground activists. Ethiopian state media reported that 1,000 protesters had been arrested in the central Oromia town of Sebeta since the state of emergency was declared on 8 October, and ahead of an investment conference in the town which began on Monday.
FBC said those detained were suspected of damaging property, but there was little in the way of opposition reports to give the other side of the story. The emergency rules include a ban on using social media to contact “outside forces”, and Ethiopians risk jail if they communicate with any “anti-peace groups designated as terrorist”.
Finally, the rules stipulate a curfew of 6pm to 6am in which members of the public may not visit factories, farms and government institutions, which have come under attack in recent weeks.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Ethiopian government to ensure “the protection of fundamental human rights” during the state of emergency, and the president has announced some electoral reforms in order to try and reach out to protesters.
A Western diplomat told the AFP news agency those changes had not yet materialised, however. “This is a state of emergency and we expect repressive measures,” the diplomat said.
“But we also expect an opening of the political space for the opposition as stated by the president in front of the parliament. This is not what seems to be happening.”