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Ethiopia: The State of Social Media

Geraldine de Bastion (@geralbine) is an international consultant with a multicultural background based in Berlin, Germany. She is an expert on information and communication technology and new media for development and advises governmental organisations, NGOs and businesses on digital media and communication strategies. She also works with activists and bloggers around the world.

Geraldine began her career working for the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). She helped organise the German delegation for the World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 and worked for the Philippine National Development Agency (NEDA) on behalf of GIZ. During the past five years Geraldine worked with newthinking communications GmbH, an agency for Open Source strategies. She curated the re:publica in 2012, Germany's largest conference on Internet and Society.

She has a passion for music, arts and new technologies and brings these interests into her work. In her free time, she is also an active member of the non-profit organisation Digitale Gesellschaft e.V.

International ICT consultant Geraldine de Bastion. Photo source: ictcracker.mixxt.com/

Markos Lemma (ML): What is the sate of social media in Ethiopia?

Geraldine de Bastion (GB): From what I experienced during my first visit to Ethiopia is that there is a big demand for information and communication in general and social media are being discovered as one means for people to have their say. Because of the low internet penetration, social media at present is reserved for the few who do have access – but this small social media community is using social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter in creative ways to further information exchange. For instance, I really like the Facebook group run by a young Ethiopian who shares ideas for going out in Addis Abeba .

ML: What role citizen media technologies play in politics?

GB: At present, citizen media, in particular blogs, are playing an important role for engaged people who want to address certain topics or perspectives not covered by regular media. Therefore, citizen media are playing an important role in creating a more pluralistic media landscape. However, the influence of citizen media on political decision making is not yet visible – mainly because of the lack of Internet penetration and lack of ability to reach a broad audience within in the country. Also, there is a sense of fear of repression against critical voices although many bloggers are still navigating under the radar of those in power.

ML: Are social media sites a new public sphere?

GB: That’s a complex question. In my opinion, they are certainly contributing to a new form of social experience and publicity. One could argue that in a country where public demonstrations not allowed, a virtual get together in a Facebook group is an alternative outlet for protest – be it virtual instead of physical. However, as long as the majority of people do not have access to these technologies, their democratic potential is limited.

ML: What is the state of freedom of information online in Ethiopia and the world in general?

GB: Pessimistically seen: in deterioration. With international threats to internet freedom like ACTA, growing abilities of repressive governments to monitor dissidents online, it seems that freedom of information is under threat. This is especially true for Ethiopia. Recently TOR announced that the Ethiopian government is now undertaking deep packet inspection of all Internet traffic. They compare this kind of action to the censorship and spying on private communication conducted by China, Iran, and Kazakhstan. With the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation still being the sole telecommunication service provider in Ethiopia, there is no way to escape the eye of the state for Ethiopians online.

I believe it is important to be informed and speak up for your rights actively – online and offline! There are a number of organizations like the EFF, EDRI and TOR where you can get advice on how to stay safe as an online activist.

ML: How do politicians use social media in Ethiopia and Africa in general?

GB: In general, politicians have a broad range of possibilities to use social media and some African leaders have caught on to their potential like Goodluck Jonathan or Jacob Zuma. However, the potential to actually get into a meaningful dialogue with citizens is often neglected and instead politicians use social media as another outlet for their information and rallying.

In Ethiopia, the use of the Internet for top-down political communication is still in its baby shoes. With so few citizens online, traditional media in particular broadcasting media are the main channel used.

ML: How do NGOs use social media?

GB: The use of social media for campaigning is becoming increasingly important for NGOs. The big are leading by example – for instance the Greenpeace campaign “The Dark Side” was a huge success. They used social media to inform, entertain and engage people. Online fundraising is also becoming increasingly popular. I think many Ethiopian NGOs are interested in using the social media, in particular to create international awareness and outreach but many are lacking capacities or finances. Using commercial platforms like Facebook to spread your message and find supports is already popular and defiantly on the rise.

ML: What are the main challenges of citizen media in Ethiopia?

GB: The monopolized infrastructure is by far the biggest hurdle in Ethiopia. Internet literacy can be improved, especially as the interest and motivation is very high. However, the state monopoly on service providers causes high prices and also makes the net easier to control and survey.

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