Can Ethiopia survive the social media wave?By TREVOR ANALO | Wednesday, June 27 2012 at 12:15
The political uprisings in the Arab world last year have been termed the Tweeter and Facebook revolutions due to the widespread use of social media to mobilise protestors and transmit messages to supporters as well as the world.
One only needed to go online to realise that the gears of the 21st century revolution were on social media.
By helping revolutionaries organise themselves and spread messages to their supporters, social media have become what pamphlets were to the French Revolution.
Social media, however, have the most potent impact – former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime fell in 18 days! It took five years to overthrow King Loui XVI and proclaim the French Republic.
It is a safe bet that Africa’s vanguard of authoritarianism agrees with former US President Ronald Reagan’s declaration that: “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”.
The Ethiopian Government wants to maximise its control over the Internet, which poses a threat to the regime's survival.
The Internet presents a dilemma for the government. At one end of the spectrum, it promises commercial opportunities such as e-commerce, while at the other end, it empowers citizens by enabling them access outside political content and providing a platform for extensive discussions.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa (84 million) and has one of the lowest rates of Internet and mobile phone penetration on the continent. Government monopoly on telecommunications has hindered the development of digital media in the country.
As of 2010, there were 915,000 fixed telephone lines, 447,000 internet users and 6.5 million mobile phone subscriptions in Ethiopia.
Successful revolutions are born in the streets and the dissidents in Ethiopia are alive to this political science truism. However, with political repressions from the top, that is a long shot, so they have been forced to converge on the internet to criticise the regime and mobilise support.
The regime knows it is too old for social media, it can’t respond to the dissidents Tweet for Tweet, neither can it Skype international media to counter claims made by the activists - actually, it recently banned Skype. But the regime knows it can follow online chatter to haul out the dissidents, it knows it can control the Internet.
Ethiopia’s political elite, one of the most authoritarian in Africa, has instituted extensive Internet filtering systems to block content.
According to OpenNet Initiative (ONI), Internet filtering blocks access to specific Internet-Protocol (IP) addresses such as online news media, Ethiopian human rights groups and blogs critical of the regime.
To cripple 'netivists', the regime has ensured that the Internet is devastatingly slow, and out of reach for many Ethiopians.
A 2.4 Mbps connection costs $244 monthly while someone using 80 Kbps for limited web functions such as emails would part with $20 monthly.
Social media such Facebook and Twitter have been used by the security agencies to identify and locate activists and dissidents, forcing many bloggers to publish anonymously.
Potential demonstrators organising on social media ahead of the May 2010 elections found police waiting to arrest them.
This crackdown coincided with an increase in restrictions on freedom of expression and suppression of independent media.
To enhance capacity to blunt the flow of alternative opinions and ideologies, Freedom on the Net 2011 report alleges that China has been providing the Ethiopian authorities with sophisticated technology that can be used for political repression such as satellite jamming equipment and surveillance systems.
Progress in global communications technology has shifted control of the narrative from the state to the citizens, proving an unambiguous threat to authoritarian regimes across the world.
Citizens are able to access alternative views from the state and build extensive social networks for political action.
That is why the Goliath of authoritarianism fears the David of the mouse. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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