People attend a prayer ceremony for protesters who died recently in the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, during the Irreecha festival for the Oromo people. The government blames social media for exaggerating the loss of life. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
The annual U.N. General Assembly meeting provides an unparalleled opportunity for world leaders to take to the bully pulpit of the U.N. chamber and trumpet their country’s achievements or slam their enemies.
Last month, presidents, kings and prime ministers talked about the dangers of climate change, progress made in development goals, the threats of terrorism or their responses to the global immigration crisis. But when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn took the podium Sept. 21, the global challenge he had in mind was perhaps unexpected: social media.
There were many other things he could have discussed, including Ethiopia’s impressive investments in infrastructure like hydroelectric dams and its high growth rates — or even a devastating drought that the government and its international partners have confronted this past year.
“We are seeing how misinformation could easily go viral via social media and mislead many people, especially the youth,” he said. “Social media has certainly empowered populists and other extremists to exploit people’s genuine concerns and spread their message of hate and bigotry without any inhibition.”
The state has singled out social media as being a key factor in driving the unrest now gripping the country. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are now largely blocked in the country, as is Internet on mobile phones, which is how most people in this country of 94 million find their way online.
For much of last year, Ethiopians, especially in the vast Oromo community, have been protesting the government over corruption, lack of jobs and poor administration. Their efforts have been championed by many Ethiopian dissidents living abroad, especially in the United States, who have held rallies for them and bombarded social media sites with denunciations of the regime’s harsh suppression of protests.
After at least 55 people were killed in a stampede at the Irreecha cultural festival Oct. 2, overseas activists called for “five days of rage,” and for the next week, factories, government buildings and tourist lodges were attacked across the Oromo region in a spasm of violence that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency Oct. 9.
While Ethiopia is nominally a democracy, the ruling party and its allies hold every seat in parliament, and it is described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the most censored countries in the world and a top jailer of journalists.
Now, however, with the Internet and the technologies it has spawned — which the government has spent millions developing the necessary infrastructure for — more and more dissident voices are being heard, but often without the restraint or commitment to accuracy of more mainstream media.
“I am fairly certain the restrictions they have put in place now are less about silencing Ethiopians and more about restricting the influence of the diaspora,” said Nicholas Benequista, a former journalist who worked in Ethiopia and is now the research manager for the U.S.-based Center for International Media Assistance.
“Ethiopia is more vulnerable to the rumor, misinformation and provocation coming out of the diaspora because it has prevented an independent, professional and ethical media from growing inside the country,” he added. “I actually think they are beginning to realize that.”
In the wake of the Irreecha tragedy, Jawar Mohammed, a Minneapolis-based Oromo activist and head of the opposition Oromo Media Network, posted on his Facebook page that troops had fired on the crowd with live ammunition while helicopter gunships mowed down innocent protesters — something that journalists and witnesses there said simply did not happen.
In a strange twist, the government, which often interferes with foreign journalists attempting to report across the country, ended up citing Western media reports that none of the victims exhibited gunshot wounds to bolster their version of events.
Mohammed said he provides the protest movement with tactical and strategic advice on civil disobedience and has actively called for attacking businesses to wound the regime economically.
A tour through his Facebook and Twitter account reveals postings in three languages — Amharic, Oromo and English — describing protests, shootings and riots across the country, as well as incidents like soldiers shooting their commanders and the use of artillery against unarmed civilians that have not been described anywhere else, and which are a bit hard to swallow.
“We have tens of thousands of activists taking pictures and photos as they take part in protest actions. They pass it to us, we verify the story using various mechanisms and share with the public,” he told The Post in an email. “When Internet is down, we have alternative ways where critical information reaches us, although the volume significantly drops.”
The degree to which social media actually translates into direct activism has long been debated. Some maintain that the role of Facebook in coordinating and fueling the Arab Spring uprisings has been vastly exaggerated.
Ethiopia, with its impoverished countryside, has an Internet penetration of between 4 and 12 percent, with few being able to afford the smartphones to take advantage of the 3G network — when it hasn’t been shut down.
Mohammed, however, says that all it takes is a few people accessing his messages through proxies or special software and then passing it on through word-of-mouth or phone calls to other activists on the ground.
Yet others active in Ethiopia’s social media environment prefer not to overestimate the influence of people like Mohammed, ascribing the unrest more to people’s well-founded anger rather than following orders from abroad.
Daniel Berhane, an Addis Ababa-based blogger and editor of the Horn Affairs Network news site, said many times in the past, Mohammed and others have called for “days of rage” and there had been little response. It was only in the wake of huge loss of life at one of the most sacred festivals of the Oromo people that there was so much violence.
His website has hosted a number of articles critical of Mohammed, and he dismissed the veracity of much of Mohammed’s reporting, but admitted that knowing through social media that others were angry helped sustain the movement.
“Social medial tells you if the other district is protesting and it makes you feel like you are not alone,” he said. “It sends a signal that the rage already exists on the ground.”
The problem, according to Berhane, is that there are not many online voices disputing the exaggerated narratives of the diaspora activists. The government relies on its monopoly of traditional media like radio and television and leaves the world of social media uncontested.
“The government doesn’t have a clue for using alternative voices even to support their own policies,” he said. “They can’t tolerate even a 1 percent deviation from their own view.”