A time warp: Face-to-face with emergency restrictions in Ethiopia

My three days in Addis Ababa felt like a step back in time. As part of my day job, I keep abreast of developments in Ethiopia, so I thought I knew the true extent of restrictions people there have to endure every day – especially since the state of emergency was imposed in October last year.

But I was unpleasantly surprised on my recent visit there. You really cannot imagine what it is like to live under the state of emergency just by reading about it in a newspaper in Nairobi, Johannesburg or London. You need to visit and live it yourself, however briefly.

You really cannot imagine what it is like to live under the state of emergency just by reading about it in a newspaper in Nairobi, Johannesburg or London.

Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s East Africa Media Manager

From the moment I landed at the airport, it was question after question from strangers about why I was in the country. I don’t doubt one bit that some of them were just being friendly, but I couldn’t shake off my suspicions of others.

But that was the least of it. On one bright sunny morning, I got to see firsthand how forbidding the state of emergency rules can be. As my colleagues and I prepared to launch a report on how the African Union deals with human rights abuses committed in conflict situations, we found out that we should have informed the police, and the Command Post – the body responsible for enforcing the state of emergency.

With more than 40 confirmed guests, including African Union and European Union diplomats, we knew it would be quite an inconvenience if our event were to be cancelled, so we quickly drafted a letter in English and Amharic and broke up into two groups to deliver them to the two agencies.

At the police station, where we were greeted with life-size portraits of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, we met a friendly female officer who saw no problem with our notice. But the Command Post saw it differently.

As Amnesty International, we have examined the State of Emergency Proclamation enough to know that an invite-only panel discussion of AU activities does not amount to a public assembly. But the Command Post took a different view.

They said no, and we had to cancel the event. Not only did they say no, but they dispatched police to the venue to ensure the hotel’s management got the memo loud and clear – that Amnesty International’s meeting was not to proceed under any circumstances.

This kind of repressive overreach by the authorities has been commonplace in many parts of Africa and elsewhere in the past, but today, in 2017, it would be considered unseemly. Many people actually take it for granted that even the most critical of opposition rallies go unhindered in many parts of the world, and that they have unfettered access to the internet.

In Addis Ababa, I learnt the true value of the internet as I moved from place to place in search of a decent connection.

Seif Magango

In Addis Ababa, I learnt the true value of the internet as I moved from place to place in search of a decent connection. At one of the top hotels in town, I had to buy coupons from the Business Centre to access their Wi-Fi, and at US$10 an hour, it didn’t come cheap. Perhaps not surprising given that the state-owned telecoms company, EthioTelecom, has no competitor to help force down broadband tariffs.

And where there was free Wi-Fi, it was mostly slow, and many times, try as I might, I couldn’t access Facebook or Twitter. The Ethiopian government is known to heavily monitor and even block online communications. All I could see on my newsfeed every time I tapped my Facebook app were posts from three days earlier. I felt like I was in an internet black hole.

Back in Nairobi, as soon we hit the tarmac, my phones started buzzing with emails that I hadn’t been unable to retrieve while in Ethiopia, including one notifying me that my flight would be delayed. “If only I had seen it on time!” I sighed. But too late, I had already had to endure a six-hour wait at Bole International Airport.
Luckily for me, my foray into this time warp was short-lived, and I could return fairly effortlessly to the familiar bustle of Nairobi. The same cannot be said for the courageous Ethiopian activists who face such emergency restrictions – and often far worse – on an ongoing basis.

Dozens of government critics are currently languishing in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges, and another 5,000 are being held under the state of emergency law, in dire and inhumane conditions – only for taking part in the wave of largely peaceful protests that engulfed parts of the country last year. Others are behind bars for simply posting their thoughts on Facebook.

Merera Gudina, a prominent opposition leader, was arrested on his return from a visit to Europe where he had criticized the state of emergency law.

Yonatan Tesfaye, a spokesman for the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, was arrested in December 2015 for comments he posted on Facebook.

Journalist Eskinder Nega was jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges in 2011 and is still behind bars. He is just one of many Ethiopian journalists currently languishing in jail, merely for doing their job.

And recently, the Ethiopian Supreme Court ruled that two members of the Zone-9 bloggers’ collective who were facing terrorism charges should face a new trial for offences against the Constitution, partly for encrypting their mobile phone messages, which they did to protect their privacy.

The list of restrictions goes on, but the first step for Ethiopia to emerge from its time warp of repression must be to bring an end to its sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression and immediately release all detainees being held solely for expressing their opinions.