Originally posted on Jan.5, 2012
Sniffing the emails
Tunisia is among the first country in Africa that started harassing cyber journalists. The country was in the business of blocking websites that were critical of the deposed President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, long before other African countries even started communicating on line. One of the means the Tunisian leaders used to monitor the online communication was by persuading people to use the local internet hosting services – most of which were owned by the President’s own family – instead of the popular webmails of Yahoo and Hotmail.
The online communications of supposed dissidents were wiretapped much easier from the local service providers than the others whose servers are spread across Europe and America. To frustrate Tunisians from using webmail, opening a Yahoo mail in Tunis at the time was said to be taking about 20 minutes.
To put that in an Ethiopian setting, the government would be discouraging people from using firstname.lastname@example.org in favor of email@example.com . The information on the latter’s account would be available on the servers of Ethio Telecom found around the La Gare area. That kind of arrangement would make it easier for the government to have access to citizens’ email exchanges; at least it has control over the infrastructure.
The suicide bomber from Arat Kilo
But the powers in Addis had been in total darkness when it comes to handling those kinds of situations. Every website that was perceived to have a different view from that of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was blocked. Human rights groups, journalist rights advocates and media owned by foreign governments – even when they were bankrolling the regime – were not spared of the onslaught.
At times the blocking could become so desperate; it turned out to be suicidal. When Blogger (a free service owned by Google) which was hosting millions of blogs was blocked in Ethiopia some years back, even the blogs of TPLF supporters had to suffer the consequences. In fact, a top level Ethiopian diplomat was among the bloggers in that platform. As the government couldn’t sift through the subject and the position of the blogs that were popping with each passing day, they decided to go the suicide bomber way by blocking the entire platform. The same thing happened when they thought it was time to block Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). They knocked their own ETV off the air for several days.
Chasing after passwords
Intolerance to dissent coupled with ignorance is at the heart of the latest repression of journalists and activists in the country. People are being arrested without evidences. The courts have no problem granting indefinite amount of time to the security forces to keep the journalists behind bars while the “evidences” are gathered.
In that regard, email account passwords have been the most prized pieces of information that security agents vie for. Almost all the detainees in the past six months have been forced to surrender their email account passwords. Most have been tortured and some have been put in solitary confinement for weeks in an attempt to force them in to revealing that piece of information. Most of them had no choice.
The surrender of that particular information has had a double edged sword effect on the “suspects”. Personal information can be used by the shameless agents to blackmail the detainees unless they confess to the imagined acts of terrorism. But most important, as the journalists are in jail with their passwords surrendered, the security agents can send any information to that account and receive same, all in the name of the suspect. There have been reports that Woubshet Taye, deputy editor- in- chief of the now defunct Awramba Times, was said to have received information from a “terror accomplice” many days after he was imprisoned.
Woubshet was detained on June 19, 2011 and the prosecutor brought to the court an email exchange dated June 30, 2011 as an evidence. Reeyot Alemu, the high school English teacher and a columnist for the Amharic weekly Feteh, had her mail box stuffed with messages that she didn’t know. Her plea to the court about the emails fell on deaf ears.
The prosecutor also produced dubious messages sent to the opposition leader Andualem Aragie that he never opened. Moreover, they were not exchanges between him and other parties. They were rather unsolicited emails, the origins of which are known only to the head of National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) Getachew Assefa.
TPLF investigators also forced three journalists of Yemuslimoch Guday (Islamic Affairs), the Amharic monthly magazine, to surrender both their email and Facebook page passwords.
The security agents are known for planting bombs in public transport systems and blame it on others. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who was Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Addis, is an ardent supporter of TPLF. Even she couldn’t help hiding the facts. “An embassy source, as well as clandestine reporting, suggest that the bombing may have in fact been the work of the GoE (Government of Ethiopia) security forces,” she wrote in a 2006 report dispatched to the State Department. In light of that heinous crime, what they are doing to the jailed journalists and opposition leaders may look like a favor.
In order to silence the private press, the government can simply stop issuing press licenses and close its Broadcasting Agency which would actually save it some money. It is hard to sell the idea of Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie and others plotting terrorism. If their writing has terrorized Arat Kilo, well that is another issue. That will simply enforce the adage the pen is mightier than the sword. For over six months the government has been looking for incriminating evidences all in the wrong places. As our online activities usually are not much different from what we do off line, it is time to realize for the TPLF henchmen to sober up a bit. It is also better to divert the resources to fix the shabby internet infrastructure of the country than planting fabricated messages on innocent citizens’ mail boxes.