By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
December 14, 2016 (ADDIS ABABA) – A new report says Ethiopia’s move to block social media and news websites during months long deadly protests was illegal.
Research conducted by Amnesty International and the Open Observatory of Network Interference shows that between June and October this year during times of heightened tension and protests, access to WhatsApp and at least 16 news outlets was blocked, especially in the Oromia region.
“The internet blocking had no basis in law, and was another disproportionate and excessive response to the protests. This raises serious concerns that overly broad censorship will become institutionalized under the state of emergency.” Said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes.
“It’s clear that as far as the Ethiopian government is concerned, social media is a tool for extremists peddling bigotry and hate and therefore they are fully justified in blocking internet access. The reality, though, is very different. The widespread censorship has closed another space for Ethiopian’s to air the grievances that fueled the protests.”
The research also found "systematic interference" with access to political opposition sites and ones supporting freedom of expression and gay rights.
Since last year, the horn of African nation has faced an unprecedented wave of violent protests that claimed the lives of over 500 people.
But the country’s most recent protests were sparked after a religious festival in Oromia region turned into violet anti-government protests claiming lives of 55 in stampede.
In October, Addis Ababa has declared a six-month state of emergency giving the authorities the power to arrest anyone without court authorization and impose curfews.
The new report said the Ethiopian government is systematically and illegally blocking access to social media and news websites to deliberately crush dissent and prevent critical reporting.
Ethiopian authorities have admitted arresting over 11,000 people after the state emergency was imposed.
Protests among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group initially sparked over territorial rights but later turned into more political, wider freedoms and economic rights.
Protesters of Oromos and Amhara which is the country’s second largest ethnic group are discontented that the ruling coalition is dominated by the Tigray minority group and demand a more inclusive power sharing.
Opposition parties have failed to secure a single parliamentary seat during the past election.
A government official has dismissed the new report as “one-sided, not credible and baseless”
"There is no internet blackout in Ethiopia," government deputy spokesman Mohammed Seid told The Associated Press.
“What we have is a certain obstruction on mobile data services. It will be resolved very soon”
However previously a number of government officials have admitted access to internet and social medias were blocked in a bid to arrest the violence which was expanding to many parts of the country.
Access to internet services have been widely affected since early October in larger parts of the country including in the Capital, which a seat to the African Union (AU) and international organizations.
Last week the government has partially lifted ban on social media and mobile data.