A Perspective on the New Ethiopian Telecom Bill

Well we Ethiopians have never had dragons in our mythology and folklore like Chinese but so far there has been attempt by Ethiopians to bring on dragons to our culture in the most nauseating manner – internet censorship. Comparatively internet has been the last remaining source of relatively free information for tech-savvy Ethiopians which are mainly concentrated in Addis Ababa in a massively controlled media landscape.

Ethiopian authorities have to endure a persistent censure from the international community for keeping an iron fist on local media. However as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi claimed at a recent World Economic Forum in Addis when the going gets tough the tough gets going and he consistently ensures that most media organizations are government mouthpieces , and he keeps critics off the airwaves either by jailing them or by coercing them into exile

Ethiopian authorities deny over and over again the accusations of implementing Chinese style internet censorships but recently there are signs that the government has reached the level that they could not even disagree with allegations. Recently a website of the ruling party EPRDF has reported that Ethiopian leaders attended a workshop with Chinese officials on June 2-3 to discuss China’s experience regarding mass media capacity building, mass media institution management and Internet management. This could be taken as a new trend and can be implied that government is reconsidering its denial policy. No need to show a bogus existence of freedom of expression in Ethiopia to foster a good relationship with western donor countries as Ethiopia has an alternative in China with similar if not identical media policy.

More to the point very recently Ethiopian parliament has passed a first legislation step in legalizing a new telecom fraud offense proclamation. I have given a brief analysis on this proclamation right away its announcement three weeks ago though the international media picked the story only recently. This proclamation provides broad and ambiguous definitions particularly for telecommunication services and equipment which might be used to include blogging and possessing social media pages such as facebook and twitter.

The draft Proclamation defines telecommunication services as anything designated as telecommunication service by Ministry of Information Technology (MIT) with the exception of broadcasting and intercom connections and listed more than ten services that are considered as telecom services. Furthermore the proclamation enlarges the definition of telecommunication equipment in considerable ways to include any apparatus intended to use for telecommunication services and it includes its accessory and software. While governments have a right to oversee internet communications within their borders by enacting laws such as this but it should not be at the expense of freedom of expression and international standard of freedom of information.

The overly broad definitions of telecommunication services and equipment have implications for other parts of the Proclamation. For instance in part two article 2 sub (2) of the proclamation, the bill provides whoever uses or holds any telecommunication equipment without obtaining prior permit from the Ministry (MIT) commits an offense and shall unless it entails a more severe penalty under any other law be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 1 to 4 years and with 10,000 birr (US$ 600) to 40,000 Birr (US$2400) . Together with the broad and vague definition of telecommunication services and equipment, this provision alone can show the way for a wider range of allegations in which individuals seeking to express political dissent online could find themselves prosecuted for acts of telecom service fraud and imprisoned for 5 to 8 years

Overall the Ethiopian media situation is fairly dismal but the hilarious part is government of Ethiopia look forward to to move toward a more vibrant economy with such kind of media policy. I do not think they will realize their dreams of becoming a vibrant economy without opening critical lines of communication between the government, media, and citizens. Internet has grown to be way to achieve an accountable and transparent government free from corruption and tyranny.

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