Internet blackout forces young Ethiopians to go retro | Africa | DW | 23.11.2016
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Africa

Internet blackout forces young Ethiopians to go retro

Since Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency, mobile data and numerous social media sites have been blocked leading young people to adopt 'old-school' solutions for maintaining their social lives.

House parties in Addis Ababa aren't what they used to be. This is one of the consequences of the Ethiopian government's declaration of a six-month state of emergency that you don't tend to hear about.

Admittedly, the declaration made on Oct. 9 appears to be having the desired effect as protests previously rocking the Oromia and Amhara regions have calmed down.

But a swathe of internet restrictions - including blocked mobile data and social media sites - remain very much in place. And no one is sure for how long they'll remain, whether they'll be relaxed before the state of emergency has run its full course, or whether they might even be extended.

"Your social life suffers," said Root, a young professional in her mid-twenties who relies on the internet for her busy social life. Like an increasing number of young people in the Ethiopian capital, she has disposable income to spend.

"When I was able to use my mobile data, I would know which party was coming up or that I was invited to. Now you have to call people, text them and you can't get in touch with everyone you want," she said.

Addis Ababa residents like to joke that if there is one area in which government interference is kept to a minimum, it's the city's vibrant social scene. Others would add that it suits the government to have the bars and nightclubs packed with distracted revellers.

But now even the right to party as hard as people want appears to have been affected.

Feeling the pinch

"Gimash, gimash," said a young man selling mobile top-up cards on Bole Road replies when asked how business is. It's an Amharic colloquialism meaning "So, so," with the man explaining that because of the restrictions people aren't using their mobiles as much.

Äthiopien Eröffnung Industriepark Industrial Park in Hawassa (DW/G. Tedla)

The government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn declared the state of emergency in October following unrest in the Oromia region

All across the city, the ebb and flow of life has been affected. DJs who relied on Facebook to bring crowds to their gigs are now wishing they'd kept a phone list as a backup. Restaurants can't post news of their latest menus and discounts and many businesses have resorted to using fliers to reach people.

"At least my phone credit lasts longer now," said Tigist, a friend meeting Root during their lunch break. "100 birr used to last just a couple of days when I was using mobile data but now I'm getting about four to five days' use." 

Not everyone is saving money. Business centers offering broadband internet services are enjoying a windfall and have hiked up prices due to soaring demand for their services.

At the end of each work day across the city, long lines of young people form against the outside walls of upscale hotels as users try to piggyback on the hotels' Wi-Fi.

Frustrated campus

"Not having internet in the 21st century is hard, it's catastrophic!" said Ph.D. student Henok at a cafe on the Addis Ababa University campus. "You can't go and browse lectures on YouTube. We can't use LinkedIn or Twitter. Every media, all of them are restricted."

He's particularly annoyed about not being able to download books. But internet-related problems go beyond just those of a logistical nature and stem from the natural yearning people have to express themselves. 

"Many young people lose hope and become depressed and frustrated because they want to say something but access is blocked," said Dawit, a young lecturer at the university. "You want to engage other people on Facebook to debate and discuss issues, especially in Ethiopia where we don't have independent media."

This is forcing people to go back to how people organized their social lives before social media.

"Now they have to call each other, make appointments," said Tigist, who is in her thirties and remembers those non-internet-dependent days. "People are actually talking to friends here in Addis as opposed to those far away. The internet restrictions are actually bringing people together."

Rights and wrongs

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been singled out by the government for agitating unrest, thereby necessitating the restrictions.

Äthiopien Anti-Regierungs-Protesten (REUTERS/T. Negeri)

Demonstrators show the Oromo protest gesture during a festival in October

Opinions about the justification of the government's actions vary greatly. There are many like Henok who are exasperated at yet another heavy-handed approach by the ruling party.

"The government could probably deal with half the misinformation on social media if they went online themselves to give their side of the story," said Addis Ababa-based blogger Daniel Berhane. "But they won't do it."

Others sympathize with what the government has done, although they argue that the internet restrictions should have been more discerning.

"I believe the actions the government has taken are right but it should have been done in a more specific way," said Yonas, another Ph.D. student. "Access should be open in universities and colleges and specific areas where mobile data and social media are more important."

But among the general population, Yonas explained, too many people aren't capable of filtering out misinformation. He recalls seeing an image from the 1994 Rwanda Genocide posted online as evidence of a crime committed by the Ethiopian government during the recent protests. 

Meanwhile all around Addis Ababa people - Ethiopians and foreigners alike - are united in watching the cursor on their screens spin round and round as they wait for websites to load.

"When I used to get home from work, I was able to check my emails instantly," said Tsiom, another lecturer at the university. "Now it takes me a couple of days to get through them."

DW has withheld, or changed, the names of certain people its spoke to in the course of preparing this article at their own request. 

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