Ethiopia prepares to host UN Internet Forum amid Tigray Blackout

Ethiopia prepares to host UN Internet Forum amid Tigray Blackout

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — Ethiopia will host the United Nations’ annual Internet Governance Forum later this month, despite an ongoing communications blackout in its war-torn Tigray region. The state-imposed blackout in the Tigray region has left six million people without phone or internet access for nearly two years.

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The Nov. 28 forum is expected to draw over 2,500 delegates to Addis Ababa, one of the largest international gatherings in the Ethiopian capital in years.

Those unable to attend in person will be able to log in virtually to hear sessions on topics such as “connecting all people” and “meaningful access” to the Internet.

However, people living in Tigray will not tune in. The northern region suffered one of the world’s most severe communications blackouts, when war broke out between the federal military and forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, in November 2020.

A peace deal reached earlier this month commits the federal government to restoring services, but the blackout remains in place.

As a result, the UN’s decision to hold the event in Ethiopia has raised eyebrows. On November 15, Senator Jim Risch, who chairs the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the decision as “wrong” and said the forum should be held in a country that “does not regularly block its citizens’ internet access”.

This week, Technology Minister Huria Ali defended Ethiopia’s role as host. She said reforms implemented by her government since it replaced a coalition led by the TPLF in 2018 mean Ethiopia currently enjoys “freedom of expression unprecedented in its history.”

“To name a few, sites that were blocked by the previous government were always unblocked,” she said. “Political prisoners were released, and all exiled politicians were invited home, the 2020 election was, by any standard, the election where the opponents freely spread their agendas.”

Huria alluded to the blackout, adding that the government had been forced to undertake activities “to protect the country” during the conflict with Tigray, which has left hundreds of thousands dead and uprooted millions.

The blackout in Tigray is not the only shutdown in Ethiopia. Communications have also been shut down in parts of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, where an armed group is fighting the government.

Addis Ababa was left without internet for weeks in 2020, following a wave of violence sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician.

Felicia Anthonio, head of internet rights group Access Now, said the internet forum is an “opportunity” to highlight the blackout affecting Tigray.

“The government of Ethiopia has been responsible for a two-year internet outage and must take urgent measures to restore full intent access in Tigray and all parts of the country,” she said. “The African Union and member states have a clear mandate to promote and protect human rights in Africa, and this is the opportunity for them to step up and help facilitate an end to this internet blockade.”

Redwan Hussein, the Ethiopian prime minister’s national security adviser, has said services are being restored to Tigray. But for now, the region is still cut off from the outside world.

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