The bustling digital world of Ethiopia experienced a significant sigh of relief as the Ethiopian government terminated a five-month-long blanket ban on the access to primary social media platforms on the 17th of July, 2023. This move comes as a respite to countless Ethiopians who faced massive internet restrictions that stifled their digital expression since February 9, 2023.
The blocked services that impacted the free flow of information and communication included mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, TikTok, and YouTube. These platforms are not only avenues for entertainment but also serve as vital digital spaces for discourse, knowledge-sharing, and connectivity among people.
Imposed initially as a reactionary measure to curtail anti-government protests that sprang from internal tensions within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), the internet restrictions drew sharp criticism from a host of human rights advocates, both within Ethiopia and internationally.
Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, strongly denounced the restrictions as early as March 2023. The organization claimed that the state-imposed digital blockade was a clear violation of citizens’ rights, hindering their freedom of expression and limiting access to crucial information. They urged the Ethiopian government to reconsider their stance and facilitate open and unregulated access to these digital platforms.
Daniel Bekele, the Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), bolstered this sentiment, expressing concern about the implications of such restrictive measures. Around the same time, the Ethiopian Media Council (EMC) joined in voicing their apprehension, calling on the Ethiopian government to put an end to the recurring phenomenon of blocking crucial social media platforms.
Moreover, the economic implications of the internet restrictions have been monumental. As per a recent report by the local CSO, Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), Ethiopia suffered an estimated economic loss exceeding a staggering US$140 million as a result of the five-month-long digital shutdown.
During the restrictive phase, many Ethiopians had to resort to the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as a workaround to gain internet access and interact on social media. Reflecting on this, Frehiwot Tamiru, the CEO of Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s leading telecom services provider, expressed disappointment to the lawmakers over the adverse impact of such restrictions on its customers. Yet, she stressed that these restrictions were beyond the purview of Ethio Telecom’s control.
Now, with the restrictions quietly lifted since Monday evening local time, Ethiopians are once again celebrating their digital freedom, engaging and interacting on the revived online platforms without any need for VPN. The move towards unrestricted internet access signifies a step forward towards the preservation and respect of digital rights, freedom of expression, and the economic stability of the nation. However, the longevity of this freedom is something that remains to be seen and closely watched in the future.