Ethiopia Prepares to Host UN Internet Forum Amid Tigray Blackout

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“To mention a few, always sites that were blocked by the previous government were unblocked,”

Ethiopia is set to host
the U.N.’s annual Internet Governance Forum later this month, despite an
ongoing communications blackout in its war-damaged Tigray region. The
government-imposed blackout in the Tigray region has left six million people
without phone or internet access for nearly two years.

The November 28 forum
is expected to draw over 2,500 delegates to Addis Ababa, one of the largest
international gathering in Ethiopia’s capital in years.

Those not able to
attend in person will be able to log in virtually to hear sessions dealing with
topics such as “connecting all people” and “meaningful
access” to the internet.

People living in Tigray
will not be tuning in, however. The northern region was subjected to one of the
world’s tightest communications blackouts, when war broke out between the
federal military and forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or the
TPLF, in November 2020.

A peace deal struck
earlier this month commits the federal government to restoring the services,
but the blackout is still firmly in place.

As a result, the U.N.’s
decision to hold the event in Ethiopia has raised eyebrows. On November 15,
Senator Jim Risch, who chairs the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations,
described the decision as “wrong,” saying the forum should be held in
a country that “doesn’t regularly block its citizens’ internet

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

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

Alluding to the
blackout, Huria added that the government had been forced to take 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 turned off
in parts of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, where an armed group is battling
the government.

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

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

government has been responsible for a two-year-long internet blackout and must
take urgent steps 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 moment
for them to step up and help facilitate an end to this internet blockade.”

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


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