Ethiopia: Government to Ban Skype, Other Online Tools

Digital Content

To protect the state-owned telecom provider, the Ethiopian government has introduced legislation that will make using online communication tools such as Skype punishable by up to 15 years in jail, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The new law, passed on 24 May, criminalises the use of independent Internet communications like Skype, Viber and GTalk, says IPI.

Although the government said the law was introduced to prevent the country's sole telecom provider, state-run Ethio Telecom, from losing money to low-cost online competitors, CPJ say banning online communication technology will also prevent journalists and dissidents from talking to sources abroad cheaply and securely - effectively shutting down their ability to carry out independent reporting.

The law also makes it an offence to import, sell or own telecom equipment, says CPJ. Anyone caught trying to circumvent the law could be charged with a number of violations, such as "obstructing or interfering" with the network, which is punishable by 15 years in prison, or "disseminating terrorising messages," punishable by up to eight years in prison and a US$4,500 fine.

The anti-terrorism law already criminalises reporting that is favourable to banned opposition groups and causes, says CPJ.

The group also notes that the government has been trying to control Internet-based communications in recent years, citing reports that Internet cafés offering services like Skype are required to keep records of the names and addresses of their customers.

At the same time, the Ethiopian government has installed sophisticated online filters in efforts to shut down back-door access to the Internet. RSF, IPI and OpenNet Initiative, a group that investigates and exposes Internet filtering and surveillance practices, report that Ethio Telecom had blocked access to the Tor network, an online tool that allows users to anonymously browse the Internet.

To be doing this type of selective blocking, says RSF, Ethio Telecom must be using Deep Packet Inspection, an advanced network filtering method that is commonly used by repressive countries such as China and Iran. RSF is concerned this move marks a new low point for the Ethiopian authorities and could be a precursor to intercepting emails, social media messages and online conversations.

"We fear that Deep Packet Inspection will be misused for surveillance purposes by a government that already subjects the political opposition and privately-owned media to a great deal of harassment," says RSF.

The moves to criminalise dissent online are the latest in a wave of repression against independent journalists and media outlets. Journalist Eskinder Nega and several activists are accused of inciting terrorism and are facing the death penalty. A verdict on their case is expected on 21 June.

CPJ says an American reporter with Voice of America and his Ethiopian translator were also recently detained, and Voice of America's Amharic broadcast was jammed and its website blocked, while "The Reporter", a privately-owned weekly newspaper, told RSF that its website was censored.

"Authorities are obviously deeply threatened by any source of independent information, from critical journalism to sharing of information online," said CPJ.