After university entrance exams were cancelled because the questions were posted online, Ethiopia’s government has responded by blocking access to social media. The ban applies to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Viber.
Despite perceived ulterior motives, authorities insist the government has the students’ best interests at heart. “It’s a temporary measure until Wednesday,” Getachew Reda, a government spokesman, said. “Social media have proven to be a distraction for students.”
This comes at a time when there is intense global condemnation of governments for blocking or limiting citizens’ access to the internet.
On Saturday, Ethiopia, Africa’s third most populous country, denied its citizens access to social media sites. According to the government, the move was necessary to help students being distracted from studying during the exam period and to prevent the spread of false rumors.
Earlier, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education postponed the 2016 national higher education entrance examinations because the ministry learnt that the exam had been disseminated through social media before the exam date. However, is this reason sufficient enough to close off a major part of the country’s cyberspace, without recourse to its implications?
Just as the United Nations has highlighted, the blocking of access to social media stops over 94 million Ethiopian citizens from utilising their freedom of expression. This is not the first time Ethiopia will be shutting down its cyberspace; in 2006, the Ethiopian government was alleged to have censored the opposition blogs.
Many people in Ethiopia rely on social media to know what is happening around them, but now, the government has locked them out. The current Nigerian government is a proof of the immense importance of a vibrant social media sphere; hence, the east African country cannot afford to kill such a platform by closing off access to parts of the internet whenever there is a problem. Instead, the relevant organ of the government should focus on investigating how exams are leaked.
Much of Ethiopia’s attempts to censor the internet is rooted in its laws. A recently proposed legislation which seeks to “criminalize spamming” is feared to be an indirect way to censor journalists and activists online. This follows similar prior legislation believed to be repressive of the internet like the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation of 2008 and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009.
Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, says a nationwide block of social media because of leaked questions is “completely disproportionate” as “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.”
Daniel Berhane, an Ethiopian blogger, also cites the possibility of impunity saying the lack of transparency around the block is the biggest concern. “This is a dangerous precedent,” Berhane told AFP. “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.”
Earlier he described the decision to block facebook as ‘‘nothing but an unconstitutional State of Emergency’‘ charging further that the government had no legal basis or procedural defense to deny its citizens freedom of expression.
Daniel Berhane has said he was considering legal action relative to the decision by government to block some social media platforms to prevent leakage of examination questions.
‘‘I am considering a legal action about the facebook blackout. — traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,’‘ the creator of influential website, ‘‘Horn Affairs’‘ said in a tweet.
The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution last week considering the restrictions of internet access as a violation of human rights. This was a few days after the election of Ethiopia as a non-permanent member of the UN security Council for a two year term.