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Social media shutdown in Ethiopia stokes fears of ‘dangerous new phase’

All mobile internet services have been shut down in Ethiopia for the last seven days, amid increasingly violent protest scenes and a recently declared “state of emergency”.

Demonstrations have taken place with regular frequency in Ethiopia’s Oromia region since November 2015, with protesters demanding greater self-rule, freedom and respect for the ethnic identity of the Oromo people, who have experienced systematic marginalisation and persecution over the last quarter century.

Authorities have used deadly force against the protesters on more than one occasion. On October 2 alone, 52 people were killed. The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), an opposition party, has reported a death toll of nearly 600 people.

While select social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp have been shut down sporadically as protests have grown more intense, in Addis Ababa, the capital, this is the longest sustained mobile Internet service shutdown that has taken place since they began.

The sudden silence of the protests on social media has left those tracking the movement over Facebook and Twitter worried.

The mobile Internet blackout is also likely resulting in a decrease in online news about the protests. Activists fear that the protest movement, which has relied on social media both for coordination and for circulating their message to international audiences, will be severed from their primary means of communication. Despite low Internet penetration in Ethiopia, social media is becoming essential – especially for the protest movements in Oromia and Amhara regional states. Newsfeeds from Facebook pages and Twitter feeds from Ethiopia are not showing the same abundance of posts as they were a week ago.

The government has been cutting off connectivity and blocking social media in Oromia and Amhara regions over the past 12 months. In June they blocked social media in the name of preventing exam leaks, but now it is not clear whether the government is switching off all mobile internet services as a precursor to the ongoing protest, or if the measure is intended as a reaction to protests. Those close to the situation fear this may be the beginning of a dangerous new phase after 12 months of protests. –

© Alleastafrica and Mail&Guardian Africa

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