Ethiopian authorities have blocked Internet access to all major social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Viber since Saturday, July 9. Authorities say the move is to prevent cheating and other widespread testing fraud – often facilitated using social media platforms – that have characterized public examinations in Ethiopia in recent years. In June, questions for the entrance exams into Ethiopian universities were leaked online, causing great embarrassment to the authorities and a subsequent cancellation of the exams.
Last month, the government of Algeria instituted a similar social media blackout after questions for the baccalaureate exams were leaked online.
Other than social media, all other Internet sites are functioning normally in Ethiopia. Government spokesperson Getachew Reda described the blockade as a short-term plan, maintaining that the move was set to benefit the examination candidates. “This is a temporary measure until Wednesday [July 13] as the social networks serve as a distraction to the students,” he assured the public.
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Some activists have decried the move, however, labeling it arbitrary and anti-freedom. Ethiopia has a long history of government censorship and control of the Internet, often targeting the opposition and critics of the government.
In 2014, the government blocked a number of websites that belonged to the opposition or were critical of government policies in the lead up to the May 2015 elections. Then in July 2014, police arrested a university lecturer who was renowned for his criticism of the government on Facebook and charged him with terrorism.
Many observers say the government can address the problem of exam malpractice within Ethiopia in a more responsible manner through basic reforms in the educational sector without needing to implement doubtful Internet blockades. Daniel Berhane, a popular blogger and writer, fears that the Ethiopian authorities are using the pretext of an Internet blockade for exams to try out a new Internet filtering tool and probably to gauge the response of the wider public.
Ethiopian authorities regularly employ firewalls and other sophisticated tools that are able to block or filter content and monitor Internet activities. Just last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution considering the restriction of Internet access as a violation of human rights.
Africa has a comparatively lower Internet penetration compared to the rest of the world and by implication, relatively fewer people using social media. However, African users of popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook tend to be more politically involved than users in other continents. The Arab spring of 2011 is an enduring testimony to the power of social media to effect political change in the face of oppression from the state.