The Ethiopian government has instituted a law that bans the use of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype or Google Talk.
Violating this law could land you up to 15 years in prison.
The East African country’s government has also just installed a block on the Tor network, a service that allows users to browse the Internet anonymously.
“The Ethiopian government is trying to attack every means of information exchange,” Ambroise Pierre from the Reporters Without Borders Africa service told BBC News.
“There’s already a very strict control over written press, and last year several journalists were arrested, and now the government is tackling communications over the internet.
“More and more people in Ethiopia are turning to new technologies, and some are even able to bypass censorship, which explains why the government is trying to use effective methods to control internet communications.”
Internet restrictions are not new in Ethiopia, with the government having a history of censoring opposition forces. Yet, this move to legislate overtly hostile restrictions is relatively recent, indicating that the government is now willing to move unilaterally in order to protect the monopoly on information exchange that it holds.
The two commonly cited explanations for the law are “national security” (read: tough to monitor) and to protect the Ethiopian government’s state-owned telecommunications service. Ethio Telecom is a monopoly, and much-despised for its expensive calling rates, especially internationally. Skype and Google Voice provide cheaper, or often free, ways to place calls. Ethiopia’s Internet penetration rate is the second-lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the country’s economy is booming, its cities expanding, and its middle class growing.
Reporters Without Borders also points out that Ethiopia’s government has recently moved to restrict its print press even more strictly, writing:
In a proposed “standard contract for printing” recently circulated by state printers, they assume the right to vet and reject articles prior to printing.
“This contract could drag Ethiopia back more than two decades as regards media freedom, to the time of Mengistu’s brutal dictatorship in pre 1991 Ethiopia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Allowing printers to control editorial content is tantamount to give them court powers. On what basis do these state-owned companies assume the right and independence to interpret the law? Does this reflect a government desire to suppress all criticism before it is voiced?
Human rights groups are concerned that this kind of overt and robust censorship through the vein of state media may in fact later conceal larger human rights abuses and lead to wider business corruption issues.