Ethiopia: Ability of the Ethiopian government to monitor and censor Ethiopian dissidents living in Canada, including scope and type of surveillance, and technology used; treatment of returning dissidents from Canada, including whether particular profiles face greater risks upon return (2019–December 2021) [ETH200763.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Overview

According to Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2020 report, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in for another 5-year term on 4 October 2021 (Al Jazeera 4 Oct. 2021; Reuters 4 Oct. 2021), has pledged to "reform Ethiopia's authoritarian state" which was governed between 1991 and 2018 by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) (Freedom House 4 Mar. 2020, overview). The same source indicates that the government is in the process of changing the country's "repressive" electoral, terrorism, media, and other laws (Freedom House 4 Mar. 2020, overview). Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that after the 2015–2018 protests, Ethiopia "is shedding its reputation" as a country that spies on its citizens (HRW 22 Feb. 2019). Freedom House's Freedom on the Net 2021, however, indicates that the Abiy-led ruling coalition has "partly reverted to authoritarian tactics" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, overview). A report by the Danish Immigration Service (DIS), citing Norway's Country of Origin Information (COI) centre Landinfo, similarly notes that positive reforms that began with the 2018 transition "have not continued, and the authorities have reverted to repressive methods to maintain law and order" and "curb political opposition" (Denmark Mar. 2021, 7).

2. Ability of the Ethiopian Government to Monitor and Censor Ethiopian Dissidents
2.1 Monitoring of Overseas Dissidents

Freedom on the Net 2021 indicates that exiled dissidents have been "frequent" targets of surveillance-enabling malicious software, or spyware (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5). In contrast, a report on Ethiopia by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs [1] cites confidential sources as indicating that "the power" of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) "has diminished since the departure of high-ranking Tigrayans, which also means that there is less capacity to monitor political opponents abroad" and "the monitoring of dissident voices abroad has been relegated to the background" due to "Ethiopia's internal problems" (Netherlands Feb. 2021, 73). The same report cites other confidential sources as stating that "the higher a person's profile, the more likely they are to be monitored. If someone can mobilise people and pose a threat to the government from abroad, this person can count on attracting the government's attention" (Netherlands Feb. 2021, 73).

Information on whether Ethiopian dissidents living in Canada are targeted by Ethiopian government surveillance could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

2.2 Electronic Surveillance

Freedom on the Net 2021 reports that the Ethiopian government's surveillance of online and mobile phone communications has been "pervasive" in Ethiopia, and since the election of Prime Minister Abiy in 2018, there has been no reforms of the applicable laws (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5). The same source adds that activists have reported that their phones were under surveillance "in previous years" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5).

In an article published on 15 December 2020 in Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, a journalist describes the following incident while travelling to interview an opposition member in Ethiopia:

[A] text message appears on my phone. Again, it's the head of the [Ethiopian Broadcasting Agency (EBA)]. He writes: "Come to Addis Ababa today. Immediately! Report to our office. Period!"

There is only one conclusion for us to draw: The EBA apparently knows who we are meeting with right at this moment. (Der Spiegel 15 Dec. 2020)

Sources indicate that the state-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly over mobile services (Reuters 11 May 2021) or the communications infrastructure in Ethiopia (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. A3–A4). Media sources report that in [June (Reuters 14 June 2021) or September (The EastAfrican 15 Sept. 2021)] 2021, the government launched a process to sell 40 percent of its stake of Ethio Telecom (Reuters 14 June 2021; The EastAfrican 15 Sept. 2021) and "is also moving to license private operators to compete with Ethio Telecom" (Reuters 14 June 2021). The same sources add that in May 2021 Ethiopian authorities granted an operating license to a private consortium led by Sararicom, a Kenyan telecommunication company (Reuters 14 June 2021; The EastAfrican 15 Sept. 2021).

According to Freedom on the Net 2021, Ethiopian authorities have the ability to track and identify the communications of Ethiopians through internet and telephone providers, and provides the following:

Anonymous communication is compromised by strict SIM card registration requirements. Upon purchase of a SIM card through Ethio Telecom or an authorized reseller, individuals must provide their full name, address, government-issued identification number, and a passport-sized photograph. Ethio Telecom's database of SIM registrants enables the government to terminate individuals' SIM cards and restrict them from registering for new ones. Internet subscribers are also required to register their personal details, including their home address, with the government. (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C4–C5)

An article published on CyberScoop [2] about a virtual talk given in October 2021 by Cooper Quintin, a security researcher and programmer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) [3], states that researchers at the EFF have discovered state-sponsored malware originating from "'a lot of'" countries, including Ethiopia, and that "[t]he countries themselves haven't necessarily developed hacking capabilities, though they appear to be outsourcing cyber-operations to third parties, or shopping around for commercial hacking tools in an effort to mask government involvement" (CyberScoop 23 Oct. 2020).

Sources indicate that Ethiopia's telecommunications [and surveillance (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5)] infrastructure has benefitted from investments by Chinese companies (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5; Gagliardone and Brhane 26 Feb. 2021, 199), backed by the government of China, giving rise to "suspicions" that the Ethiopian government has adopted "highly intrusive" surveillance practices modeled on the system in place in China (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5).

According to a chapter written by Iginio Gagliardone, an associate professor in media and communication at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Atnafu Brhane, digital rights activist based in Ethiopia, in a 2021 report on digital rights in ten African countries published by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, the Ethiopian government "has been able to combine skills and tools acquired from different partners (e.g. surveillance training from the US government; software sold by European, Israeli and Chinese companies) to develop a complex apparatus of surveillance" (Gagliardone and Brhane 26 Feb. 2021, 204). Similarly, a 2019 article by Bulelani Jili, a PhD candidate in the African and African American studies department at Harvard University (Harvard University n.d.), published on Africa Is a Country, an online website of "opinion, analysis, and new writing" which holds various partnerships, including with the New School in New York and the Open Society Foundations (Africa Is a Country n.d.), provides the following:

Ethiopia's hybridized surveillance apparatus reveals the state's capacity to do patchwork with diversely sourced technology. The government has acquired monitoring tools through commercially available spyware. Namely, the UK and German-based Gamma International FinFishers, Cyberbit an Israel-based cybersecurity company, and the Italian based Hacking Team's Remote-Control System. These apparatuses extend Ethiopia's surveillance capacities, and effectively enable access to files on targeted laptops. They also log keystrokes and passwords as a way to turn on webcams and microphones as a means to make them spy gadgets. These tools run on Chinese funded Information and Communications Technology (ICT) systems. (Jili 2 July 2019)

Freedom House reports that the Ethiopian government enacted the Computer Crime Proclamation [No.958/2016] in 2016 which has "strengthened the government's surveillance powers" and "enabl[es] real-time monitoring or interception of communications when authorized" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C5). Article 25(3) of the Computer Crime Proclamation No.958/2016 indicates the following:

Notwithstanding the provisions of subarticle (1) and (2) of this Article, the Attorney General may give permission to the investigatory organ to conduct interception or surveillance without court warrant where there are reasonable grounds and urgent cases to believe that a computer crime that can damage critical infrastructure is or to be committed. (Ethiopia 2016, Art. 25(3))

Article 24(1) of the same law indicates the following regarding service providers:

Without prejudice to any provision stipulated in other laws, any service provider shall retain the computer traffic data disseminated through its computer systems or traffic data relating to data processing or communication service for one year. (Ethiopia 2016, Art. 24(1))

2.3 Censorship

Sources indicate that in 2018, the Ethiopian government lifted bans on [264 (RSF 25 June 2018)] websites (Freedom House 3 Mar. 2021, Sec. D1; RSF 25 June 2018). Freedom in the World 2020 states that the positive changes which began in 2018 contributed to a "more open atmosphere for free expression among ordinary people (Freedom House 4 Mar. 2020, Sec. D4). However, Freedom on the Net 2021 notes that the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has resulted in "sharply restricted human rights online" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, overview). The same source adds that

the online environment was marred by increased manipulation, misinformation, hate speech, and targeted harassment. The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed continued to restrict freedoms of expression and the press, including with the arrests of online journalists. (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, overview)

Freedom on the Net 2021 also states the following:

Despite Ethiopia's low levels of internet access, the former government was known to employ an army of online trolls to distort the information landscape. Opposition groups, journalists, and dissidents used the contemptuous Amharic colloquial term "Kokas" to describe the progovernment commentators. Observers say the Kokas regularly discussed Ethiopia's economic growth in favorable terms and posted negative comments about Ethiopian journalists and opposition groups on Facebook and Twitter. In return, they were known to receive benefits such as money, land, and employment promotions. It is uncertain whether the current government uses the same online manipulation tactics, but supporters of the old government have accused the new government of doing so. They scornfully refer to supporters of the new government as "Tekas." (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. B5)

According to the same source, Ethiopian law, including the 1995 constitution, "formally guarantees fundamental freedoms for Ethiopian internet users," but these rights have been "routinely flouted in practice" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C1).

Incidents involving censorship include the following:

  • A shutdown was imposed on WhatsApp and Telegram after the "an attempted plot to unseat the Amhara Regional State Government" (NetBlocks 27 June 2019).
  • In August 2019, the pan-African news website of African Arguments, which published investigative stories, was blocked (OONI 14 Aug. 2019).
  • In January 2020, there were reports of "[l]ocalized" shutdowns of networks and social media in Oromīya which were imposed to impede an opposition faction reportedly fighting with government authorities (Freedom House 14 Oct. 2020, Sec. B8).
  • In November 2020, the Ethiopian government ordered a "communications blackout" in the Tigray region; as of July 2021, connectivity "remained disrupted," blocking access to information, communication and humanitarian aid (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, key developments).

In February 2020, the Ethiopian government passed the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation [No.1185 /2020] (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. B2). Articles 4 and 5 of the new law provides the following:

4. Prohibition of Hate Speech
Any person disseminating hate speech by means of broadcasting, print or social media using text, image, audio or video is prohibited.

5. Prohibition of Disseminating Disinformation
Disseminating of any disinformation on public meeting by means of broadcasting, print or social media using text, image, audio or video is a prohibited act. (Ethiopia 2020)

Articles 8(1) and (2) of the law provide the following regarding social media service providers:

  1. Any enterprise that provides social media service should endeavor to suppress and prevent the dissemination of disinformation and hate speech through its platform.
  2. Social media service providers should act within twenty four hours to remove or take out of circulation disinformation or hate speech upon receiving notifications about such communication or post. (Ethiopia 2020)

According to Freedom House, "[v]iolating the law carries fines of up to 100,000 birr ([US]$2,700) or up to five years' imprisonment, with the steepest penalties for people with more than 5,000 followers" (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C2). The same source reports that the law has been perceived in Ethiopia as deeply restrictive by activists and civil society actors as well as the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression. (Freedom House 21 Sept. 2021, Sec. C2).

3. Treatment of Returning Dissidents

Information on the treatment of dissidents returning to Ethiopia was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

A 2020 report on Ethiopia by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) notes that Prime Minister Abiy "encouraged" dissidents to return and "[m]any" have returned, including "members of opposition movements previously designated as terrorist organisations" (Australia 12 Aug. 2020, para. 5.33). The Dutch report states the following:

Several confidential sources say that they have no examples of people who participated in a demonstration outside Ethiopia and got into trouble as a result when they returned to Ethiopia … An NGO employee says that in his opinion it is more about the role that a person plays in the opposition. If this person plays a prominent role and stands at the front of a demonstration abroad shouting anti-government slogans, he or she could get into trouble when visiting Ethiopia. However, no concrete cases are known to him.

Three sources, all of Oromo descent, say they no longer dare to return to Ethiopia because of their opposition activities abroad. One source said he is not a member of the OLF [Oromo Liberation Front] and that he only engages in marginal opposition activities, such as attending demonstrations in front of embassies. Yet he does not believe he is safe in Ethiopia. In the second half of 2019, he was in Ethiopia for a family visit. He won't do that anymore for the time being, the source stated.

One of these sources said that his father in Ethiopia had already had security forces at the door several times who wanted to arrest him. The father, who according to the source was not an outspoken opponent of the current government, had managed to evade arrest. He thought his activities for the Oromo community abroad had gotten his father in Ethiopia into trouble, but he couldn't say for sure.

Following the riots after the murder of Hachalu [a popular singer], the Ethiopian authorities charged four people in absentia with incitement to ethnic and religious-based violence, among other things. One of the defendants, who lives in the United States, reportedly held Amhara responsible for the death of the singer on OMN [Oromo Media Network] and called on Oromo to do everything in their power to overthrow the prevailing "neftenga" – or Amhara – system. (Netherlands Feb. 2021, 6, 8, 75–76)

Information on the treatment of dissidents returning to Ethiopia from Canada could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Notes

[1] The report on Ethiopia by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs covers the period from July 2018 to January 2021 and is based on online interviews with "relevant and expert sources" and confidential information from Dutch diplomatic missions (Netherlands Feb. 2021, 6).

[2] CyberScoop is a US-based media outlet focused on technology and security news (CyberScoop n.d.).

[3] Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a US-based non-profit organization "defending civil liberties in the digital world" (EFF n.d.).

References

Africa Is a Country. N.d. "About." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Al Jazeera. 4 October 2021. "Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed Sworn in as PM for Second Five-Year Term." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Australia. 12 August 2020. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: Ethiopia. [Accessed 13 Dec. 2021]

CyberScoop. 23 October 2020. Shannon Vavra. "Global Cyber Community Can Do more to Stop State-Sponsored Malware, EFF Researcher Says." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

CyberScoop. N.d. "Our Brands." [Accessed 9 Dec. 2021]

Denmark. March 2021. Danish Immigration Service (DIS). Ethiopia: Political Opposition Parties – Recent Developments. [Accessed 8 Dec. 2021]

Der Spiegel. 15 December 2020. Fritz Schaap. "Ethiopia Sinks Deeper into Ethnic Conflict." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

The EastAfrican. 15 September 2021. Tesfa-Alem Tekle. "Ethiopia Invites Bids for 40 pc Stake in Giant Ethio Telecom." [Accessed 6 Oct. 2021]

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). N.d. "About EFF." [Accessed 6 Oct. 2021]

Ethiopia. 2020. Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation No.1185 /2020. [Accessed 7 Oct. 2021]

Ethiopia. 2016. Computer Crime Proclamation No.958/2016. [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Freedom House. 21 September 2021. "Ethiopia." Freedom on the Net 2021. [Accessed 8 Oct. 2021]

Freedom House. 3 March 2021. "Ethiopia." Freedom in the World 2021. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2021]

Freedom House. 14 October 2020. "Ethiopia." Freedom on the Net 2020. [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Freedom House. 4 March 2020. "Ethiopia." Freedom in the World 2020. [Accessed 9 Dec. 2021]

Gagliardone, Iginio and Atnafu Brhane. 26 February 2021. "Ethiopia Digital Rights Landscape Report." Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: Lessons from Ten African Countries. Edited by Tony Roberts. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies. [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Harvard University. N.d. "Bulelani Jili: Biography." [Accessed 7 Oct. 2021]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 22 February 2019. Amy Braunschweiger and Felix Horne. "Interview: Ethiopia Lets in Human Rights Watch for First Time in 8 Years: Genuine Progress on Rights, Yet Ethnic Tensions Loom in Rural Regions." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Jili, Bulelani. 2 July 2019. "Tuning Surveillance Software with African Faces." Africa Is a Country. [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

NetBlocks. 27 June 2019. "Ethiopia Partially Restores Internet Access Days After Blackout Following Reported Amhara Coup Attempt." [Accessed 7 Oct. 2021]

Netherlands. February 2021. Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken. Country of Origin Information Report Ethiopia. [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI). 14 August 2019. Maria Xynou, et al. "Resurgence of Internet Censorship in Ethiopia: Blocking of WhatsApp, Facebook, and African Arguments." [Accessed 7 Oct. 2021]

Reporters sans frontières (RSF). 25 June 2018. "Ethiopian Government Unblocks 264 Websites and Blogs." [Accessed 7 Oct. 2021]

Reuters. 4 October 2021. Dawit Endeshaw. "Sworn in for New Term, Ethiopia Leader Promises to Fend Off Foreign Pressure." [Accessed 5 Oct. 2021]

Reuters. 14 June 2021. Elias Biryabarema. "Ethiopia Launches Tender Process to Sell 40% Stake in Ethio Telecom." [Accessed 6 Oct. 2021]

Reuters. 11 May 2021. "Ethiopia's State Telecoms Monopoly Launches Mobile Money Service." [Accessed 6 Oct. 2021]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Citizen Lab; Committee to Protect Journalists; professor at Canadian university.

Internet sites, including: The Africa Report; Citizen Lab; Committee to Protect Journalists; East Africa Monitor; The Economic Times; Electronic Frontier Foundation; France 24; Mail & Guardian; Middle East Monitor; Minority Rights Group International; MIT Technology Review; The New York Times; TechCrunch; US – Department of State; Voice of America; The Washington Post.