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Ethiopia uses telecom technology to violate the rights of its citizens

The Ethiopian government has been using telecom technology to monitor its citizens, journalists and social media activists in the country and internationally. According to Human Rights Watch, technology acquired from several companies overseas has been used to surveil perceived political opponents.

The Ethiopian government routinely violates rights to freedom of expression and access to information. Essentially, through a monopoly on telecom – namely the country's only telecom operator Ethio Telecom – the power of surveillance is abused. Business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch, Arvind Ganesan, says no one is allowed to disagree with the government in Ethiopia.

"The Ethiopian government is using control of its telecom system as a tool to silence dissenting voices," said Ganesan.

Limitless power of surveillance
According to a report written by HRW, over 100 victims of abuse and former intelligence officials claim the government has total control over the telecom system. Security officials have limitless power in monitoring communications in the country. No warrants are required or legal oversight necessary to record calls and intercept emails.

As per the report, people are often detained, questioned and then tortured. Recorded calls are used as evidence that they are connected to organizations banned by the government. During peaceful demonstrations, cellular networks are shut down and the whereabouts of protesters are ascertained through mobile records. One former member of the opposition party told HRW about how he was detained.

"One day they arrested me and they showed me everything. They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother. They arrested me because we talked about politics on the phone. It was the first phone I ever owned, and I thought I could finally talk freely."

In a 2013 study conducted by HRW and the University of Toronto, examining Internet security and civil rights, it was noted that Ethiopia habitually blocks social media sites, opposition websites, blogs and access to information they consider dangerous.

One group in Ethiopia that has repeatedly suffered injustice is the ethnic Oromo population. Authorities have used Oromo phone records and intercepted their emails to prove that members of the community belong to banned groups. The Ethiopian government has also been detaining and arresting people who receive calls from abroad. Many Ethiopians are now afraid to answer calls from relatives working overseas.

Government activities not constitutional
The rights to freedom of expression and access to information are documented in Ethiopia's constitution. Nonetheless, the government ignores the legal framework of the country and instead employs methods that infringe upon these rights as well as detain and torture people identified as threats to the system.

There is widespread fear among the people that the government is constantly watching. Ethiopians have resorted to self-censorship as a result. Certain topics such as politics, demonstrations or international issues are avoided in communication across telecom networks, for fear that the conversations will be monitored and recorded. Accordingly, the government maintains an array of channels and spies, on a grassroots level, to conduct their surveillance efforts. Human Rights watch has found that many rural Ethiopians, in particular, view phones and computers as tools that the government uses to monitor their activities and communications.

"As Ethiopia's telecom system grows, there is an increasing need to ensure that proper legal protections are followed and that security officials don't have unfettered access to people's private communications," added Ganesan.

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