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Ethiopia: Enemy of the Internet?

15 years in prison for using Skype in Ethiopia: various media outlets repeated this false claim originally made by Reporters Without Borders. But the misinformed news has turned attention to the country's Internet policies.

by Anaïs Richardin On June 29, 2012

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In recent weeks, there’s been consternation in media around the world over an apparent ban on the use of VoIP services, such as Skype, that had allegedly been approved in Ethiopia. Reporters Without Borders claimed a law had been ratified on May 24. In reality the “Proclamation on Telecom Fraud” remains just a draft legislation currently at the first reading stage by the members of the House of People’s Representatives.  Media took Reporters at their word and relayed the information, exaggerating the situation and misinforming their audience about the content of the alleged law. From BBC to TechCentral, Al Jazeera and LeMonde, headlines about the ban were frightening – and misleading.

The statement made by Reporters Without Borders suggested that VoIP users could now be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. In fact, VoIP use has already been banned in Ethiopia for 10 years.

The cart before the horse

On June 7, the RSF press release outlined their concern over a piece of legislation that was supposedly ratified on May 24.

Use of VoIP hardware and software has just been made a crime by the new Ethiopian Telecom Service legislation, which was ratified on 24 May. Anyone violating this provision could be sentenced to up 15 years in prison.

Although reported by RSF as if it had already been enacted, the legislation was in fact still just a draft. As it is not possible to refer to official Federal Negarite Gazette, that is released when a new law is voted (it is only published in a print version that a kind soul scans and publishes on the web), Owni tried to contact the Ethiopian government but they did not respond to our requests for comment. We obtained the document and reviewed it carefully.

Most of the media spread the RSF’s story, repeating the claim that the use of VoIP could lead to 15 years in prison. That sentence is in fact the most severe sanction under the proposed law, and does not apply to the use of VoIP.

Article 10(3) of the law stipulates:

Whosoever provides telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine equal to dive times the revenue estimated to have been earned by him during the period of time he provided the service.

Article 10 (3) concerns professionals and business entities using the Internet for telephone calls and fax services. The owners of “Internet cafés” themselves (where most Ethiopian Internet users get connected) are likely to be the target of this disposition, not the individuals using the service.

But the following sub-article of the law is more likely to apply to users:

Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years and with fine from Birr 2,500 to Birr 20,00.

Calling via the Internet might cost you a lot, but only if the law is effectively enforced. Indeed, VoIP is already banned in Ethiopia since 2002 under an amendment of telecommunications proclamation providing that “the use or provision of voice communication or fax services through the Internet are prohibited”.

Protectionism

Nevertheless, Internet cafés in the capital city of Addis Ababa have been providing this service for many years. In a recent interview with The Africa Report, Internet café owner Misrak Belay declared he does not forbid his clients from using the service.

People are using all these technologies in my Internet cafe. I am not aware about the new legislation.

Internet café owners and patrons have thus been using an illegal service for a decade, likely without knowing it. The only report of an arrest, allegedly related to the use of VoIP, came a year ago, when 31 year-old Yidnek Hail was apprehended in an Internet café in Addis Ababa. According to him, the main charge was his demonstration of how to use Skype. For the government, which owns Ethio-Telecom (managed by French company France Télécom) , VoIP services are a threat and a dangerous competition that needs to be eradicated, says Hail.

Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC’s former correspondent in Addis Ababa, thinks Ethiopia is seeking to limit its losses.

Internet cafes may be allowing people to male calls for far less that the cost of Ethiopia telecom, the state’s telecommunications provider that has the monopoly and charges very high prices – and doesn’t want to have its service undermined.

There is unfortunately no public data that allows us to get an idea of these supposed losses. Elizabeth Blunt sees another reason, far less defensible, for the authorities to prohibit Internet communications.

There is also the issue that Skype can’t be listened to so easily and can’t be controlled.

Citizens’ surveillance

An assertion that the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), which wrote the draft legislation, confirmed in the preamble to the text.

Telecom fraud is a serious threat to national security beyond economic losses.

The new law gives more power to the Ethiopian government to monitor and muzzle dissent. Indeed, an article provides “whosoever uses or holds any telecommunication equipment without obtaining prior permit from the Ministry commits and offence and shall, unless it entails a more severe penalty under any other law, be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 1 to 4 years, and with fine from Birr 10,000 to Birr 40,000”.

This provision creates a window of opportunity for the government to persecute citizens who decided not to fit in the state’s mould. In this text, “telecommunication equipment” means “any apparatus used or intended to be used for telecommunication services and includes its accessory and software”. Thus, having a Facebook page or a website, could lead to 4 years in prison. This is a real restriction of freedom, but Ethiopia is used to it. Although the government jailed many dissenting journalists over the past few years, calling them “terrorists”, the country does not appear in the RSF’s ranking of Enemies of the Internet.

An article of the law-to-be provides “uses or causes the use of any telecommunication network or apparatus to disseminate any terrorising message or obscene message punishable under the Criminal Code“. These “obscene” and “terrorising” messages could be interpreted under the anti-terrorism law promulgated in 2009. This law criminalises public support to opposition groups and causes considered terrorist, such as the opposition party Ginbot 7, with 20 years in prison.

Endalk, a famous Ethiopian blogger, gives an example of the consequences the mix of these two laws could lead to.

Acts of posting a single status updates describing an allegiance to one of an exiled journalist or a political dissent subject to 5 to 8 years rigorous imprisonment.

The Ethiopian constitution states that “All persons have the right to the inviolability of their letters, post and communications by means of telephone, telecommunications and electronic devices”.

Reporters Without Borders fears that the law, combined with the recent use of DPI threatens even more the freedom of information and freedom of expression in the country. This information was not relayed in the Ethiopian media. Did they fear the state’s censorship or did they decide not to cover it because the law concerns only a few Ethiopians?  Indeed, only 0,75% of the population uses Internet, making Ethiopia the African country with the second weakest Internet penetration rate, behind Sierra Leone.

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