HRW Calls for Immediate Lifting of Communications Shutdown in Western Ethiopia

By Staff Reporter

Human-Rights-WatchMarch 9, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Ethiopian government should immediately lift the shutdown of internet and phone communications in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

In a statement issued on Monday, HRW said the two-month-long shutdown telephone and internet services has prevented families from communicating, disrupted life-saving services, and contributed to an information blackout during government counter-insurgency operations in the area.

Deputy chief of staff of the Ethiopian defense forces Lt. General Berhanu Jula in a recent interview said the telephone and internet cut has helped his army to conduct successful operations against the insurgents.

“The insurgents were using telephone and mobile infrastructure to abort the government’s operations against them,” Berhanu was quoted as saying.

HRW said since January 3, 2020, the government authorities have disconnected mobile phone networks, landlines, and internet services in western Oromia’s Kellem Wellega, West Wellega, and Horo Gudru Wellega zones. In East Wellega, residents reported that the internet and social media services were blocked, with text and cell service available only in major towns.

The shutdown has been imposed in areas under federal military control and comes amid reports of government military operations against the armed wing of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) otherwise called ‘Shene’.

“The Ethiopian government’s blanket shutdown of communications in Oromia is taking a disproportionate toll on the population and should be lifted immediately,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The restrictions affect essential services, reporting on critical events, and human rights investigations, and could risk making an already bad humanitarian situation even worse.”

Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, communication blackouts without government justifications have become routine during social and political unrest, the Human Rights Watch said.

A ruling party regional spokesman told the media in January this year that the communications shutdown had “no relationship” to the military operations but then said that it had contributed to the operation’s success. The federal government offered no explanation for the shutdown until February 3, when Abiy told parliament that restrictions were in place in western Oromia for “security reasons.”

International human rights law protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information and ideas through all media, including the internet. Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. A lack of government transparency regarding communication shutdowns and their length invites abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

Four humanitarian agencies operating in the affected zones told Human Rights Watch that their activities were considerably hampered because they could not get critical information on the humanitarian and security situation. One aid worker was quoted as saying that health care services were also affected, with doctors and ambulances were unable to communicate with patients.

The communications blackout was also affecting people outside these areas who are desperate for news of their loved ones.

In 2019, Ethiopia shut down the internet eight times during public protests and unnecessarily around national exams. Following the June 22 assassinations of five high-level government officials, which the government-linked to an alleged failed coup attempt in the Amhara region, the government imposed an internet blackout across the country. The internet was only completely restored on July 2. At the time of the shutdown, the government gave no explanation or indication of when the service would be restored.

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