Ethiopian law criminalizes independent telecom use

Nairobi, June 15, 2012–A new law in Ethiopia imposes prison sentences for offenses related to the independent use of telecommunications tools and services, according to local journalists and news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by broad and vaguely worded provisions of the law, under which journalists could be prosecuted for the methods they use to circumvent government surveillance and censorship.

The House of Peoples’ Representatives, where 99 percent of the seats are controlled by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, passed on May 24 the Telecom Fraud Offenses Proclamation, local newspaper Addis Admas reported. The law purports to “prevent and control telecom fraud,” which it described as “a serious threat to national security beyond economic losses,” according to a copy of the text obtained by CPJ.

The law allows for a prison sentence of up to eight years and a fine of up to 80,00 birr (US$4,500) for “using or causing the use of any telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any terrorizing message” or using telecommunications for an “illegal purpose.” What constitutes a “terrorizing message” could be broadly interpreted under the country’s far-reaching anti-terrorism law, which criminalizes reporting that the government deems favorable to banned opposition groups and causes.

The law also gives the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology unchecked authority over the import, sale, and possession of telecommunications equipment. Use or possession of equipment without government authorization is punishable by a prison sentence of up to four years and a fine of up to 40,000 birr (US$2,250). The ministry may determine which equipment may be used without a government permit.

The government retains a tight monopoly over telecommunications in Ethiopia, with state-run Ethio Telecom the sole national provider, according to CPJ research. Under the law, methods used by journalists to circumvent state surveillance, interception, or Internet censorship on Ethio Telecom in the course of newsgathering could be interpreted as “obstructing or interfering” with the network–a criminal offense carrying a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

“We condemn the Ethiopian government’s systematic effort to control all forms of communications,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Authorities are obviously deeply threatened by any source of independent information, from critical journalism to sharing of information online.”

Ethio Telecom has been losing revenue to Internet-based communication services and popular international calling businesses, according to local reports. Local journalists, however, fear authorities will use the law to curtail cost-effective and secure communications with contacts, including those outside the country, where most dissidents reside. Over the past decade, Ethiopia drove more journalists into exile than any other country, according to CPJ research.

Local journalists say the government has sought to control the use of Internet-based telecom services in recent years, by cracking down on Internet cafés that offered Web-based telecommunications services and requiring them to keep records of the names and addresses of their customers, according to local reports. A student, Yidnek Hail, claimed he was arrested by Ethiopian authorities in December 2011 for showing citizens how to use Skype in an Internet café where he was employed in the capital, Addis Ababa, according to news reports.