Saturday, October 19, 2013

‘Digital Surveillance’ Vs ‘Right to Privacy’ in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s constitution is one of the world’s generous constitutions in giving rights. It gives ‘the nations, nationalities and peoples the right to self determination to secession.’ So, it is no wonder that it gives the ultimate right for freedom of expression and the right to privacy. However, the question is that ‘are the rights granted on the constitution applicable in reality?’

It is universally true that rights are always granted with restrictions. These restrictions are applied usually for ‘national security issues’ or even to protect the well being of certain society members and also in cases where the right conflicts with other rights. For example, the right for freedom of expression should not exceed the right to privacy and leave individuals in physical and psychological insecurity. In consideration of this, I have been challenging myself to answer the question ‘is Ethiopia over writing constitutional rights for one of these reasons or just to protect the power of its rulers?’

Article 29 of the constitution in its sub article 2, gives the right to ‘everyone’ to express him/herself without interference. “This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.” On sub article 3/a, it approves the prohibition of any form of censorship; on sub article 3/b, that citizens have the freedom to access information of public interest.

There is also article 26 of the constitution which gives the people the right to privacy. Section 2 of this article reads:
“Everyone has the right to the inviolability of his notes and correspondence including postal letters, and communications made by means of telephone, telecommunications and electronic devices.”

I will forward three major problems to make my point. 
Problem #1:
All Proclamations are NOT constituted in the Constitution

In Ethiopia, the government bothers little to listen to alternative voices of the people before passing bills. Among these bills are there the infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 and others were passed in the same way without giving the people a chance to reflect on the draft to recommend improvements on how it can protect the country from danger of any kind without violating rights of the people.  

Article 14/1/a of the Anti-Terrorism proclamation reads as:
“[upon getting court warrant, National Intelligence and Security Office may] intercept or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, Internet, electronic, postal and similar communications of a person suspected of terrorism”. This grants National Intelligence and Security officials, who are more concerned about protecting power than the people, the ultimate right to violate the right to privacy of citizens especially the dissidents.

Similarly, the Telecom Fraud Offence No. 761/2012 in its article 14 gives Police the right “for covert search” upon court warrant where among others the Police “has reasonable ground that a telecom fraud is likely to be committed.”

We may think this contradiction between the proclamations and the constitution is OK for the sake of the big picture – which is ‘National Security’. But, we know it is not OK when we learn about who the victims are. According to Article 19's Ethiopia submission to the Universal Periodic Review, 12 journalists are prosecuted in relation to “terrorism act” since the proclamation was passed in 2009. To mention a few among these convicted journalists:

  1. Eskinder Nega – is blogger who is convicted and is serving 18 years of imprisonment in Kality;
  2. Abiy Tekelemariam and Mesfin Negash – are editors of and are sentenced 8 years of imprisonment in absentia;
  3. Abebe Belew – is a journalist on an internet based radio called Addis Dimts. He is convicted of “terrorism” and sentenced in absentia;

These are not the only ones who were convicted on their activities on the cyber; there are also other journalists on whom digital information were presented as “evidences of crime” against them. Reeyot Alemu, a young woman journalist and a teacher who is convicted of “supporting terrorism” is now serving her imprisonment in Kality. She was accused for reporting to, US based website whose owner is also convicted in “terrorism.” Among the “evidences” presented against Reeyot Alemu, there was a picture that she was tagged in a facebook status by a facebook friend she doesn’t recognize in person.

In the same way, Wubshet Taye, editor-in-chief of Awramba Times - currently defunct newspaper, is serving 14 years of imprisonment in Zeway, is also convicted of “terrorism” acts. Among witnesses presented against him included a phone conversation he had. The conversation was about the suit color choices on which he was supposed to wear as a best man for a wedding of his best friend but it was interpreted as “code” by police.

Why Filter the ‘Worst Penetration’?

In 2012, Open Net Initiative, called the Ethiopian internet penetration as the 2nd lowest penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa; however, having this lowest penetration, Ethiopia, instead of encouraging the connectivity, it is discouraging it. Ethiopia is listed as “Not Free” in both 2012 and 2013 reports of Freedom on the net 2013 that Freedom House is sponsoring.

Since 2006, following the controversial Ethiopian election of 2005, Ethiopia blocked news websites – some of these are operating locally (e.g. website the former ‘Fitih’ newspaper), opposition parties’ and affiliated entities’ websites, individual blogs, audio-video tubes and many others from being accessed in the country. Websites of Aljeezira, CNN, Economist and and IMF are among internationally recognized websites that were blocked and again unblocked in Ethiopia when the sensation of the news or story they published dies. My comment is that, if Aljazeera, CNN and Economist were Ethiopian media houses, their journalists would either exile or get imprisoned and the media houses would eventually shut down.

The Surveillance is More Sophisticated than What the Internet can Offer

Security researchers of Rapid7, an international security firm, scanned the Internet in 2012 for finFisher – internet surveillance software and discovered IP addresses of only 11 countries among which Ethiopia is one.

In February 2013, Citizen Lab – a research organization on the area, found that ‘a finSpy campaign in Ethiopia uses Ginbot 7 as bait to infect users.’ Ginbot 7 is a “terrorist group” according to Ethiopia and infected pictures with spyware of its leader, Dr. Birhanu Nega, were released on social networks to spy cyber activities of citizens who might download those pictures.

Ethiopia accepts universal conventions of Human Rights; its constitution provides the right for freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The problem is that the law provisions contradict the constitution and even if they don’t, they will be interpreted in a way they are used against journalists and innocent dissent citizens and on behalf of power.

In conclusion: Ethiopia MAYBE doing well in economic progresses; but it is NOT doing ANYTHING at all in human and democratic rights.

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