By William Davison | Bloomberg
Internet messaging applications such as WhatsApp haven’t worked for more than a month in parts of Ethiopia that include Oromia region, which recently suffered fatal protests, according to local users.
Smartphone owners haven’t been able to access services including Facebook Messenger and Twitter on the state-owned monopoly Ethio Telecom’s connection, Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer, said by phone from Woliso, about 115 kilometers (71.5 miles) southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa.
“All are not working here for more than one month,” said Seyoum, who teaches at Ambo University’s Woliso campus. “The blackout is targeted at mobile data connections.”
A spokesman for Twitter Inc. declined to comment on the issue when e-mailed by Bloomberg on Monday. Facebook Inc., which bought WhatsApp Inc. in 2014, didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
Protests that began in November in Oromia over perceived economic and political marginalization of Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group led to a crackdown in which security forces allegedly shot dead as many as 266 demonstrators, according to a March report by the Kenya-based Ethiopia Human Rights Project. The government has said that many people died, including security officers, without giving a toll.
One social-media activist, U.S.-based Jawar Mohammed, disseminated information and footage from protests to his more than 500,000 followers on Facebook.
Restricting access isn’t a policy and may be because of “erratic” connections, according to government spokesman Getachew Reda. “We have not yet found any explanation,” he said by phone from Addis Ababa on Monday.
The move fits a “familiar pattern” of restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information by Ethiopian authorities, said Leslie Lefkow, deputy director for Africa at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Pulling the plug on social media is a predictable attempt to cut the flow of news and information about the Oromo protests,” she said Monday in an e-mailed response to questions.
The government has the technology to “control” the messaging applications, the Addis Ababa-based Capital newspaper reported on April 10, citing Andualem Admassie, Ethio Telecom’s chief executive officer. Andualem didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Hawassa city in Ethiopia’s southern region has suffered similar difficulties in accessing applications for more than a month, said Seyoum Hameso, an economics lecturer at the University of East London. “We couldn’t communicate with relatives,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions on Monday.