Ethiopia: Turning up the heat online

These days Al Jazeera is cry­ing foul accus­ing Ethiopian author­i­ties of block­ing their web­site. The Qatari satel­lite TV net­work reached that con­clu­sion based on a data col­lected from Google Ana­lyt­ics, a pro­gram that tracks the num­ber of vis­i­tors a site attracts. Their analy­sis showed that Al Jazeera’s hits dropped sharply from the 50,000 mark to mere hun­dreds between August and Sep­tem­ber of 2012. The data seem a bit older con­sid­er­ing the Channel’s tra­di­tion of break­ing the news.

All said and done, that is hardly news. Ethiopia has been fil­ter­ing online con­tents for the bet­ter part of the last decade. Scores of web­sites have been blocked. Almost all for­eign broad­cast to the coun­try are rou­tinely jammed.

online-mediaGov­ern­ment offi­cials have for long denied any involve­ment in such activ­i­ties, until they got a cue from the late dic­ta­tor, who famously said: “I will give them the clear guide­line to jam it (VOA Amharic),” back in March 2010. Then his dis­ci­ples started to come out with sim­i­lar pro­nounce­ments: “If there is a threat, there is noth­ing that can stop us from shut­ting them down,” for­mer spy chief and tele­com head Dr Debret­sion Gebremichael told the now defunct Amharic weekly Awramba Times, talk­ing about the online media his office was blocking.

Enter the virus

Citizen Lab, an affil­i­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto in Canada, revealed recently yet another means Ethiopian author­i­ties employ to spy on cit­i­zens’ online activ­i­ties. They use a spy­ware called Fin­Fisher embed­ded in the image of Gin­bot 7 lead­ers. Who ever down­loads those images or open emails asso­ci­ated with them is let­ting the viruses in to their sys­tem. That way, Ethiopian author­i­ties are sup­posed to sniff what oppo­si­tion polit­i­cal activists have in store for them. Vic­tims of the viruses, how­ever, have yet to be found.

Asked about the Fin­Fisher soft­ware that the gov­ern­ment is alleged to have used, the tele­com head was tight-lipped. He denied any knowl­edge of the claim.

The lat­est rev­e­la­tion of the usage of spy­ware to infect users com­put­ers in a bid to spy on their online activ­i­ties shows the dis­tance the gov­ern­ment is will­ing to go. Accord­ing to the 2012 World Inter­net Stats, with 1.1 per­cent inter­net pen­e­tra­tion rate, Ethiopia stands right at the bot­tom of all African coun­tries. Then it is mind bog­gling to think why the author­i­ties allo­cate the scant resources chas­ing after an imag­ined con­spir­acy instead of improv­ing the shabby tele­com infrastructure.

For the record…

A con­fi­den­tial minute said to have leaked from the office of the Prime Min­is­ter describes the shad­owy secu­rity chief Getachew Assefa explain­ing at length how his office had been “inter­cept­ing cell phone con­ver­sa­tions; break­ing in to the email cor­re­spon­dence of Mus­lim activists; col­lect­ing and ana­lyz­ing infor­ma­tion; closely mon­i­tor­ing Face­book post­ings as well as Paltalk dis­cus­sions.” In one of the last meet­ings the for­mer tyrant presided, the secu­rity chief con­cedes he has not been able to col­lect any­thing of significance.

As a pass­ing remark, the country’s all too incon­se­quen­tial con­sti­tu­tion states: “All per­sons have the right to the invi­o­la­bil­ity of their let­ters, post and com­mu­ni­ca­tions by means of tele­phone, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and elec­tronic devices.” Tell it to the marines!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: