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Ethiopian blog blockage sparks free speech debate

Web watchdog the OpenNet Initiative this week confirmed that the Ethiopian government has been blocking scores of anti-government websites and millions of blogs hosted by Google's Blogger service (see Reuters story).

Ethiopian bloggers responded to the news with a string of defiant posts, vowing to continue writing and beat the blockages.

But the announcement also sparked a debate over the dangers of free speech after one of the blocked websites published an article applauding separatist rebels for slaughtering 65 Ethiopians in an attack on an oilfield (see Reuters story) – and urging the fighters to keep on killing.

OpenNet told Reuters that it had gathered technical proof that Ethiopian authorities were filtering out the IP addresses of political websites – and had blocked Blogger's entire Blogspot domain, home to millions of blogs across the world.

A spokesman for Ethiopia's Ministry of Information dismissed the claim as a “complete fabrication”. But Rob Faris, US-based research director for OpenNet, said the evidence of the blockage was “overwhelming”.

According to a longer version of the Reuters article posted in OpenNet says Ethiopian blogs really blocked on MeskelSquare:

“We are very interested in Ethiopia because it is a very recent entry into this field. Its internet penetration is very low but it is still going to the trouble of blocking the internet. That shows the lengths that the regime is willing to go to,” said Faris…

Ethiopian bloggers have started displaying ‘Blocked in Ethiopia’ badges on their websites and swapping technical tips on how to get round the filters. Other sites currently inaccessible in Ethiopia include the home page for the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy and 39 out of the 61 Ethiopian weblogs tracked by GlobalVoices, a website that reports on weblogs outside the West part-funded by Reuters…

OpenNet said it found evidence of the blockage by recruiting volunteers who ran programs on their computers inside Ethiopia scanning the network run by the state monopoly provider Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation. The results were then emailed back to OpenNet for analysis.

The scans followed the individual units or “packets” of digital data that get sent out whenever an internet user types a web address into a browser's address box. “We found that the packets were dropped at the same place…Any packet associated with a particular IP address was dropped. You get a ‘time out’ message when you try to access the site. Your request never leaves the country…It is the simplest and bluntest way of blocking,” said Mr Faris.

The Other Side responded with two defiant posts Unless it is just a temporary glitch, it seems that… and Ethiopia Tops CPJ’s Dishonor Roll saying:

For the record—I don’t take kindly to being silenced. My days of sporadic blogging have come to an end and I will be back in full force. Bring it on!

Seminawork matched her post for post with Finally! and Zemedkun Tekle and Internet Blockage saying:

The government should and will know (after this post) that it can't block us from writing, whatever technology it uses.

But there was also disquiet over an article published by Ethiopian Review, a hugely-popular anti-government website that regularly comments on breaking news. The article in question commented on news of an attack by the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) on a Chinese-managed oil field in Ethiopia's remote Somali region in which nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopian workers were killed. Ethiopian Review commented:

[It's unfortunate that the Chinese workers lost their lives in the crossfire. Their government failed them by not heeding ONLF's warnings. Over all, the brave ONLF fighters should be congratulated for a job well done. ONLF and OLF might also want to consider carrying out similar operations on Al Amoudi's gold mines that are cash cows for the Woyanne terrorist regime. Need a reminder? Do it for Messeret Tadesse who was shot by Woyanne soldiers in the back. Do it for Shibire Desalegn who was gunned down by Woyanne gunmen. Do it for the countless other civilians who were brutally tortured and murdered by Woyanne thugs.]

The comment sparked immediate outrage from bloggers and commenters alike.

Commenter tk responded to the original post about the blockages on MeskelSquare by asking whether it was so wrong to use technology to stop the spreading of such views:

none of us don't approve of any censorship, but for a diverse and politically fragile country like ethiopia, do you support such devilish messages from websites and blogs to be heard by the innocent ethiopians citizens in africa????
we need your public answer to this important question.
you keep saying, the blocked sites are those critical of government. is asking for more bombings and more massacres being “critical”????

Blocked blogger 4kilo laid into the Ethiopian Review post in Going against the country or Opposing a government?:

trying to oppose or criticize or condemn a brutal regime is one thing but going against the very country that we love and trying to protect is totally different thing.

Filweha Pundit expressed his own disgust at the Ethiopian Review entry in Misguided opposition – ER goes Mad!:

There are a number of opposition websites and blogs struggling for a political change in Ethiopia – so that the law prevails and democracy functions in a meaningful way in Ethiopia – and that is a healthy thing. But asking for violence and bloodshed in the country (while you are sitting in Virginia or anywhere else) and telling insurgents to come and attack the nation, justifying killings of foreigners, professionals and citizens who have done nothing but do their jobs, is I think a misguided and blind opposition.

  • Solomon Mamo

    The subjugation of free speach in Ethiopia is beyond anyone’s imagination. Even the openNet initiative put Ethiopia as the number one violator of Free speach in this planet which is okay but if Ethiopia ranks number one, there can’t be any number next to Ethiopia. That is number two, three up to may be hundered violators in that list.

    Ethiopia’s is dammen worst without any comparision. free press is killed so to speak, jounalists are jailed, murdered and made to flee their home, yes the governments pay too much granted/loan development projects money to internet huckers to get the opposition websites blocked. Even this time it is not possible to talk Ethiopian politics on phone since anyone don’t want to take the risk that his telephone is hijacked and put himself and his familes in harms way.

    Besides in Ethiopia, it is strictly forbidden to sit together and discuss any issues including politics. The number of spys in major cities I guess might be greater than the civilian people. If you remembers in the last court hearing of the jailed opposition leaders, the judged disallowed them to have discussion among themsleves. Imagine, these people are under the gun and yet they are not allowed to talk.

  • samuel

    The so-called Ethiopian government is a unique case of a government who has all the makings of a terrorist organization. So, the 64 million dollar question would be: does one has to be non-government to be labeled as a terrorist organization? I know the U.S. has an elaborate list of terrorist sponsoring states, but can we also have terrorist states that terrorize their own people? I’m not talking about dictatorship. This is much serious than dictatorship. I haven’t seen a dictatorship that made “its own” country landlocked by helping a huge chunk of the country secede without any regard for the interests of one’s country. The Ethiopian government is a first case of what it would be like if a terrorist organization comes to power. What we see in Ethiopia today is the result of a terrorist organization masquerading as a government and plundering the wealth of the nation and torturing and killing its citizens with a tacit approval of the US and British governments. Ethiopians should be commended for treating their terrorist (TPLF) in the same way the us government is treating its.

  • teddy

    andrew heavens, it is saddening that you still tried to accuse our leaders in ethiopia of censorship after knowing how much journalism is abused in ethiopia. in fact, in ethiopia and by ethiopian exiles in the west, journalism values, ethic and standards have been destroyed and buried many years ago!!!! the list of abuses of so-called “oppositions” and “critics” is endless to even mention!!
    i mean, what about when bloggers asked for the ethiopian deputy minister to be assasinated in his late 2006 visit to USA?? remember the anuak conflict? so what about when previous derg regime supporters disguised under “journalists” in ethiopia printed a paper saying meles zenawi is hitler after the anuak conflict??? doesn’t that sound to you like a satisfying revenge for their beloved mengistu?? do YOU think they should get a chance to serve the previous DERG regime by trying to EQUATE the death of 200 ethiopians in gambela,(in a case of ethnic conflict that has become a norm) to the death of nearly 1,500,000 ethiopians by Derg by genocide & systematic control of food aid in 1980′s???do you support such defamation of the prime minister??
    what about when “opposition” websites displayed the photo of a US plane roaming around in mogadishu in 1990s and claimed it was a “woyane” plane massacring & bombing civilians in mogadishu??? can you expect anyone outside ethiopia to like meles zenawi after such brainwashing by the so-called “critiics” which act more like “terrorists”?? (by the way, most of these so-called critics are usually those that came to america using asylum and can’t return to ethiopia unless woyane is “overthrown” and the rest of them are actually criminals that managed to escape. our friend andrew, these are your so-called “critics” ) But what about when “opposition” websites displayed torture photos of prisons in Asia and said they were photos of woyane prisons??? what about when “opposition” websites displayed another photo of a helicopter down in Iraq to appease their viewers by saying it is a photo of woyane helicopter in mogadishu?? after witnessing all of this “journalism” can you wholeheartedly call these people “oppositions”?? when is the last time Hilary clinton tried 24 hours 7 days a week to use propaganda to overthrow george bush?? my friend andrew, who were you really kidding when you said they are “oppositions”?? these are the same people who have militants like OLF and ONLF stationed at ethiopian borders and in asmara to attack our people. mr. andrew, these are the people that are involved in overthrowing our government violently. they DO NOT represent the oppositions OFDM, UEDF, UEDP-medhin or anyone like that. they are at war with the people of ethiopia and with our “young” democracy which is a democracy that can sadly say thank you to these same terrorists disguised under “critics” for staying “young” even after 7 years since our nation had its first multi-party election in its history. Please mr. andrew, speak the truth, tell the truth!!

  • sholla

    the ethiopian government spocks man sayed “it could be becouse of technical problems” andrew purposly filtered this out. Imagine faulty equipment selects oppsition pages and bloks. This indicates that the faulty equippment is the brain of eprdf and their suppoters.

    Hallo guys the ethiopians are much conious than andrew and other reporters who are coloring eprdf.you may fool your likes ferenji

  • Yibiqan

    Dear Andrew Heavens,

    While your article is so important in summarizing the responses against the brutal regime’s blockage of the websites, and scratched for justifications for this,it is really questionable why you never mentioned about the hate monger and terrorist websites of the pro-woyanie hirelings: aigaforum and hagerfikir. If what you stated justifies the blockage of those critical websites like ER, you should also should have gone further and include the pro-woyanie apologist’s articles that are well accessible all over the world-you should have included SAmuel Gebrue’s blatant article on the justification of the war crimes.

  • Don Bassman

    Prime Minister Zenawi has already written his own obituary. He continued to box himself into a corner and the rest of the world is losing patience. The free world despises him, as do so many of his people. He is a despot. His cowardice in blocking free speech shows just how week his his; cannot allow critical speech lest the truth be discussed openly.

    WE in the international community are in close touch with CPJ, HRW, and our newly empowered US collegues in Congress. Hands off free speech. Redeem yourself MR Zenawi and allow free speech. Don’t be Mobutu. Be Mandela.

  • DT

    The fact that no private media existed before this government arrived seems to be forgotten. well, at least the government is trying as opposed to other african governments like Eritrean that doesn’t even have one private media. anyway, it is a process and we should encourage it and support those government representatives who are doing their best to implement this culture in ethiopia carefully without creating hatemongers that would reflect the suspicion and division of the people, and exploit this opportunity to express their voice of hate, which would be disasterous for our diverse nation that needs healing, unity based on equality – not journalists that expand our differences in every way.

    For those of us who know our history and for those of us who are not blinded by hate, it is an understatement to say the current meles zenawi government has done an amazing job with bringing private media, while still being caution about the side effects of it in a nation with a polarized politics.

  • Wolloyew

    Mr. Andrew

    I think you are falling into the same sort of faulty logic the intellectually incurious zombie Lidetu Ayalew regularly employs. If you believe in the fundamental principles of democratic societies, you must be capable of swallowing such provocative pronouncement. By the way, have you ever heard of Bavarian Illuminati or ever read the Illuminatus trilogy written by the two Roberts? Imagine! Elias Kifle as Illuminatus Primus is in a conspiracy with the Ethiopian armed groups to destroy the Woyane tyranny and the notorious Arabian tick. I, Wolloyew, am grateful to those Ethiopian bloggers like Elias Kifle who speak the truth to power; it is thankless and difficult but vital work.

  • Meseret

    I think ER is really upset by the government continues repression and crulty to his own people. ER comments is that the so called ethiopian government is not a government but rejected loosers by ethiopian. I think most Ethiopians are agreed with ER except those who paid by the so called ethiopian governmnet such as Lidetu and Neguse

  • Daniel

    I think there is nothing wrong on ER. Ethiopians have no govermnet. Their state is under the rule of terrior. What is then the problem to defend your country from terrisim using any means possible???
    I think we all need to know the truth first. why do we get surprized on the death of 75 people by ONLF? EPRDF is killing in hundreds every month.

    Look: Every day hunderds of people die in IraQ. But when just a single person died in the USA, it will be top story for at least a month. Likewise, when ONLF or OLF kills just a single person, it is a top story in the state run televsion ETV, in ethiopia. But when EPRDF kills say 200 people, you will never hear any news about it. I think there is nothing wrong with ER!!

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