Ethiopia’s only ISP, state-owned Ethio-Telecom, has just installed a system for blocking access to the Tor network, which lets users browse anonymously and access blocked websites. At the same time, the state-owned printing presses are demanding the right to censor the newspapers they print. Reporters Without Borders is very worried by these attempts to reinforce government control of news and information.
Danger that printers will censor newspaper content
Reporters Without Borders accuses the biggest state printer, Berhanena Selam, which almost has a monopoly on newspaper and magazine printing in Ethiopia, and other state owned printers, of trying to impose political censorship on media content before publication.
In a proposed “standard contract for printing” recently circulated by state printers, they assume the right to vet and reject articles prior to printing.
“This contract could drag Ethiopia back more than two decades as regards media freedom, to the time of Mengistu’s brutal dictatorship in pre 1991 Ethiopia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Allowing printers to control editorial content is tantamount to give them court powers. On what basis do these state-owned companies assume the right and independence to interpret the law? Does this reflect a government desire to suppress all criticism before it is voiced?
“If this standard contract is adopted, we fear it could lead to widespread self-censorship, which is already very common, and to media subservience towards the government. Criticism, independence and media diversity would all suffer, and the vitality of Ethiopian democracy would suffer as well.”
Article 10 of the proposed contract is evocatively entitled “Declining to print content violating the law.” It says the printer has the right to refuse to print any text if he has “adequate reason” to think it breaks the law. It goes on to say that the printer reserves the right to terminate or cancel the contract at any time if he has “adequate reason” to think that the publisher “has a propensity to publish a content which entails liability.”
This article openly contravenes article 29 of the 1994 federal constitution, which guarantees press freedom and bans “censorship in any form.” Reporters Without Borders points out that only an independent and impartial judge should have the power to impose any kind of sanction or prohibition affecting media freedom.
Ethiopia’s privately-owned newspaper and magazine publishers reacted to the proposed contract by addressing a joint petition to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi urging him to recognize that it violates the constitution and to have it withdrawn. The response from a government official was to insist that it was “a strictly business-based decision” and to deny any desire to censor.
The printers are keeping up the pressure on the publishers, saying they will refuse to print any newspapers or magazines and, under an unlawful contract that is an extension of the new press law that has put liabilities on printers for print media content.
“We call on all media professionals – publishers, editors and journalists – to be brought into the process of negotiation and drafting of this printing contract,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The possibility that printers could be held liable for printed content must not be used as grounds for reintroducing prior censorship.”
As it stands, the proposed contract would add to the repressive legislative edifice that the Ethiopian government has built over the past three years. It includes the 2009 anti-terrorism law under which two journalists have been charged and sentenced to long jail terms. It is also liable to exacerbate the already poor climate between the privately-owned media and government.
Government steps up control of Internet, uses sophisticated technology
Government-owned Internet Service Provider Ethio-Telecom, the country’s only ISP, has for the past two weeks been blocking access to the Tor network, an online tool that allows users to browse anonymously and access blocked websites. To do this kind of selective blocking, Ethio-Telecom must be using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), an advanced network filtering method.
DPI is widely used by countries that are “Enemies of the Internet” such as China and Iran. Blocking access to porn sites is usually the official reason given for installing and using it, but in practice it allows governments to easily target politically sensitive websites and quickly censor any expression of opposition views.
In installing DPI and blocking access to Tor, the Ethiopian government is probably taking a first step towards installing a sophisticated filtering system that will eventually enable it to intercept emails, messages posted on social networks and Internet voice conversations using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software such as Skype.
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.
The authorities say the ban was needed on national security grounds and because VoIP posed a threat to the state’s monopoly of telephone communications.
The new law also gives the ministry of communications and information technology the power to supervise and issue licences to all privately-owned companies that import equipment used for the communication of information.
The OpenNet Initiative has already reported cases of Internet censorship in Ethiopia, including the blocking of blogs, news sites and opposition sites. So far there have been relatively few cases, above all because of the low level of Internet use in Ethiopia.
“This new law and the possibility that a Deep Packet Inspection system has been installed mark a turning point in the Ethiopian government’s control of the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We fear that DPI will be misused for surveillance purposes by a government that already subjects the political opposition and privately-owned media to a great deal of harassment.
“We urge the Ethiopian authorities not to install this filtering system and, as we already said when The Reporter news website was blocked, we share the view of the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, who recommended in a June 2011 report that restrictions to the flow of information online should be limited to ‘few, exceptional, and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law’.”
It should be noted that, a few days after spotting that access to the Tor network was being blocked in Ethiopia, the Tor Project posted a message on its blog explaining how to circumvent the blocking.