Telecom law is another tool of repression |
By Yidnek Haile | July 15, 2012
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), particularly the Internet, have dramatically revolutionized our world. It has significantly changed the way we produce, distribute, manage, govern, entertain, socialize, learn, judge, etc. These drastic positive impacts of ICTs on our life are mainly attributed to the sharing and application of information and knowledge in an effective and efficient way; with responsibility. The role of innovative technologies, such as broadband and mobile phones, is particularly significant in converging the need for different media channels to manage data and information in different formats; including voice and video. Apart from the standardizing bodies, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet is owned by no one; of course everyone. Whosever, abuses these resources; or uses them in an irresponsible manner; be it a service provider, a user, or a regulator; will not be saved from being accountable for trying to stop the globe from spinning.
What is going on there?
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report of 2010 reveals that Ethiopia has the fourth lowest internet users in the world; next to Liberia, Timor-Leste and DR Congo. This is regardless of the claim that the nation is investing 10% of its total annual budget on ICTs. So what is wrong? Lack of infrastructure? Lack of skills? Lack of awareness? Or because of some other reasons? Well, all may contribute their part; but censorship and information monopoly seem the main threat in the Ethiopia context. This is evident from the fact that Ethiopia is the sole nation among its all African neighbors to censor the internet substantially; and to monopolize all information related services in Africa along with Comoros and Djibouti. The sole telecom service provider, the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation/Ethio Telecom, not only monopolizes all kinds of telecom related services ranging from selling calling cards to installing infrastructures; but also spies, filters, blocks, jams and intercepts information exchange; in collaboration with Information Network Security Agency (INSA) via the nation’s sole gateway; and uses those evidences to criminalize the targeted individuals. It is not uncommon to see that under cover government security staffs are often allocated to internet cafes to monitor citizens’ browsing behavior. This not only restricts citizens from browsing independent international media such as human right advocates’ sites; but also puts a considerable psychological pressure on users not to be charged with the controversial “anti-terror” law; even for an ordinary use, such as sending government critical emails and instant messaging.
Reports on the current situations in Ethiopia reveal that the repression is even getting worse. Influx of prisoners of conscience professionals from every sector has been fleeing the nation since there is no room to exercise their profession. In the past decade, more journalists have fled the nation than any other countries; and those determined to face the risk or unable to escape have been charged with the new controversial “Anti-terrorism law”. In the last week, for example, the Pen America’s “Freedom to write” award winner Journalist Eskinder Nega; UDJ’s opposition leader Andualem Arage; along with 22 others have been found guilty of having link with the opposition group, Ginbot Seven, and conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks and incite “Arab Spring style” violence in the country. Ginbot Seven is a US-based Ethiopian opposition group led by Dr. Berhanu Nega, who was elected as a Mayer of Addis Ababa, protested the election fraud in the rest of the country in 2005 and jailed with other prominent leaders and members. The group is considered as a terrorist organization side by side with Al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda by the Ethiopian parliament, which has only 1 opposition member out of its 547 seats.
The nation’s importation and readiness to install the sophisticated Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) filtering tool to block targeted websites including TOR, and for selective interception; the continuing jamming of TV and Radio transmissions such as the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and the Voice of America radio; and the amendment of the telecommunication proclamation in May, this year, has raised more concern on the freedom of expression in Ethiopia.
Of course those ICTs staff who are employed mainly because of their ethnic and political affiliation with the regime; busy of banning their citizens from benefiting from information and knowledge rather than offering a piece of solution; in return to their skills gained at the expense of the poor who cannot eat three times a day; are responsible for helping the authoritarian incarcerated their own people incommunicado. There are evidences asserting that these employees are corrupt enough to tap citizens’ telephone conversation; not only for institutions and officials; but also for individuals at family level as far as they bribed them.
In the past couple of weeks, the international media is flooded with reports about the Ethiopian Telecommunication Proclamation which reportedly bans Skype and other Voice Over Internet (VOIP) services. But, is this proclamation the first of its kind in Ethiopia? How and against whom had it been used? Why amendment this time? Is there any indication of taking remedy action in response to strong international criticism on the issue? Here is the evidence.
Articles related to Voice Over Internet and call-back in the proclamation introduced in 1996 as Proclamation No.49/1996 and amended in 2002 as Proclamation No.281/2002, state that:
Article 24(2): The use of call-back service is prohibited.
Article 24(3): The use or provision of voice communication or fax services through the Internet is prohibited.
A punishment of 3 to 5 years rigorous imprisonment and a fine equal to double revenue estimated to have been earned will follows for the “offences”.
The new proclamation, amended a month ago “for national security reason” includes the following articles:
1/ uses or causes the use of any telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any terrorizing message connected with a crime punishable under the Anti-terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 or obscene massage punishable under the Criminal Code; or
Whosever uses or holds any telecommunication an equipment without obtaining prior permit from the ministry 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 fine from Birr 10,000 to 40,000 (These two articles are quoted from a report from CPJ).
Article 10(3) – Whosoever provides Telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine equal to five times the revenue estimated to have been earned by him during the period of time he provided the service.
Article 10(4) – Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 3 years and with fine from Birr 2,500 to Birr 20,000.
Any “illegal” phone calling may result in a prosecution of up to 15 years imprisonment and a fine. “Illegal” may include the use of any other alternatives on the internet other than those provided by the sole provider.
It may not be so surprising that a nation to have such laws in place “for national security reason” or to protect its government owned sole telecom service provider. What makes it so outrageous is that whom the law is intended for; and how it is being used as a weapon for repression and corruption.
There are few hundred Internet Cafes and Telecenters in the capital Addis Ababa and in the regional cities. Most of them provide internet connection service to the public. They pay thousands of Birr per month to the sole provider for the very slow (i.e., practically about 96Kbps for the alleged 512Kbps ADSL broadband), and unreliable internet connection. The owners of some of the internet cafes who are either members of the current ethnic based ruling regime, or having some connection with trusted officials of the regime, provide Internet based telephony and other Voice Over Internet services such as Skype and Google Talk in addition to internet connection service. However, individuals perceived to be threat for the regime, non supporters of the regime or linked to some other groups such as opposition parties and government critics are often criminalized and persecuted for bypassing the aforementioned law.
In April 2010, for example, 22 individuals working in ICTs and Communication related microenterprises, including myself, were charged with Article 24(3), mentioned above; and their properties were confiscated. According to the charge, evidences used to prosecute these individuals include, head phones and microphones, telephone handle, Central Processing Unit (CPU) which of course every computer should have to function properly, soft applications such as Skype and Soft Phones, Laptops with voice applications, CDs with voice supporting applications, etc., found in their premises during the raid; and witnesses from the Ethio Telecom itself and from the under-cover security who ascertain that the defendants used or showed others to use such services and such equipments were found in their premises. In addition to the jail term, a fine of double of an estimate of 5 Birr per minute calculated for the duration of the time since a voice application is assumed to be installed in the user’s computer is demanded from each defendant. Note that this is regardless of the fact that the voice application might had been installed a decade ago; as most users often buy second hand computers imported or donated from developed countries and the user might even not recognize whether a voice application is installed to her computer.
In December 2010, the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission (FEAC), which itself is criticized for corruption and bias, reportedly charged 15 individuals with running illegal international phone calling businesses. But, none of the highly corrupt officials from the government offices running the business indirectly are included in the charge. As usual, some other low profile individuals are made to pay the price on their behalf. For example, Nebiat, the former ETC worker, was charged for setting up voice software and receiving 400 ETB (£14).
What is the solution?
The Minister of State in the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO), Ato Shimelis Kemal, recently, denied the allegation that Ethiopia criminalizes Skype and other internet related Voice Over Interneet (VOIP) services. He said the law is only at a draft stage and it is intended to restrict unlicensed service providers who use internet to provide telephone services. According to media outlets from Ethiopia, the Minister goes on to state that there were no reports of prosecution with the 2002 legislation. We wish if this wouldn’t happen and the authorities think that the “draft” proclamation will not come to force. However, the deputy’s statements contradicts not only with the articles in the law, stated above, and the widely available evidences; but also with the statements from his own Minister, the Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Bereket Simon, who argues that his government is intent on blocking all VOIP services sometime soon since freely available technologies such as Skype and Google Talk are highly hurting the revenue of Ethio Telecom, the sole provider. Part of the proclamation claims that it intends to restrict unlicensed users. There is no evidence that The Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (ETA) ever issued a license on services related to VOIP; it only issues license for Ethio Telecom related services; so how to be licensed for VOIP services? Or it is only a crime? Isn’t ETA, which takes years to approve simple equipments such as GPS tracking devices and new mobile devices before they are used in Ethiopia?
It is highly arguable that the revenue of the state owned sole provider, Ethio Telecom, has been highly hurt by freely available Voice Over Internet; where only 0.4% of the 82 million population is using internet. Even if that was the case, it shouldn’t be at the cost of freedom of information. It would be even better to charge and collect tariffs for freely available services rather than incarcerating citizens in incommunicado, if the concern is really revenue. Information and knowledge are power; informed society knows how to generate its own revenue; knows how to choose. Please, don’t hold us in a dark. Let us speak, let us share, and let us choose. Don’t repress us, don’t deprive what globalization offered us. Don’t try to stop the globe from spinning.
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