Ethiopia currently has about 12 cases of coronavirus. Medical experts have called for a nationwide public education campaign using television, the internet and radio to spread word on the importance of good hygiene habits and giving information on how to spot symptoms. However, according to Human Rights Watch, millions of Ethiopians in western Oromia are cut off from phone and internet access due to a government-imposed shutdown.
With this shutdown of the internet, Ethiopians in western Oromia cannot get vital news about the global spread of the coronavirus. The Lead Researcher of Human Rights Watch, Laetitia Bader, said, ’[T]his means that their relatives who are living outside of the region are struggling to get any information about what’s going on. This has also had an impact on the number of humanitarian actors who haven’t been able to get good information on what the humanitarian situation and the security situation is like. So, this is really having an impact on people both inside and outside of these affected areas’.
Bader added that ‘the government’s refusal makes it likely that key information is not reaching everyone, including those vital to control efforts in western Oromia, health care workers and humanitarian organisations’.
The Ethiopian government began cutting connections to mobile phone networks, landlines and the internet in the Oromia region 3 January. The government did so in response to unrest in the region, including clashes between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). However, on 20 March the International Oromo Lawyers Association wrote a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, demanding a change to the shutdown. They noted that ‘the population is suffering behind a dark curtain. Without access to the information of what is happening in these areas, public scrutiny of the act of the government is impossible’.
Bader concludes that ‘the government should be looking at finding ways to make sure that information can flow freely. That important discussion about security situations and social unrest can take place in a peaceful and positive manner. And obviously, these blanket communication bans are a problem’.
The shutdown led to a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #ReconnectTheWestETH. Internet and mobile phone access in the country are controlled by Ethio Telecom, which has about 57 million subscribers.
Photo source: Citypoint Church