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Human Rights Watch becomes more dramatic, no substance

By Girma Beqalu
Tigrai Onlne - March 30, 2014

This week, Human Rights Watch produced yet another of its highly sensationalized reports. It made an incredulous claim that "the ruling party depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population."

Human Rights Watch always employs yellow journalism techniques and exaggerated and emotive headlines and phrases designed to attract media or fund-raising attention. The latest phrase used as a heading of the report is the most dramatic and preposterous of all: "They know everything". That is in reference to the government of Ethiopia.

Human Rights Watch wants us believe that the government knows everything. Despite the fact that, Ethiopia is a developing country with little capability to conduct such mass level high-tech surveillance to "control the population".

Could the writers of the report be thinking about some western hi-tech countries, who have entered the digital age? We have read in the news that in some western countries, where the whole system is digitalized, the ruling elite monitors, stores and analyze everyone's phone calls, emails, video-chat etc.

We know from the past that Human Rights Watch will not respond to legitimate criticisms made against its claims, methodologies. Instead it chooses to ignore the criticisms and pompously claim that any other evidence, from whatever source, however reputable, should be disregarded unless and except it concurs with them.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch's reports suffer from critical defect that it is difficult to tell whether they are research reports or fictional stories, due to the methodological flaws on data gathering, compilation and presentation, hence difficult to verify or disprove the allegations.

As a result, replying to a Human Rights Watch report is seen by many as a waste of time. Let me point out some of the main flaws of the latest report, for what it is worth.

The latest report of Human Rights Watch is entirely based on hearsay collected from unnamed individuals. As usual, Human Rights Watch failed to provide details of its interviewees or any details of the alleged misconducts.

This makes it impossible to cross-check whether the interviews have really taken place at all and also to inquire for more details. For this, Human Rights Watch has an excuse that it recycles on each and every of its reports. The same excuse was made in the current report:

"Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report inside Ethiopia, but many of the people were interviewed outside of the country, making it easier for them to speak openly about their experiences. For fear of possible reprisals, all names and identifying information of interviewees have been removed, and locations of interviews withheld".

How on earth can a person residing in Europe or America can have "fear of possible reprisals" for speaking against Ethiopia's government? This is not Eritrea or North Korea, where relatives of diaspora opposition leaders are attacked for being related to the opposition. For example, father of the terrorist Berhan Nega lives in Addis Ababa as a wealthy man.

One should not concern much about these anonymous sources whose knowledge and motivation is unknown. Human Rights Watch's report falls short of the publicly known facts and basic logic.

For example, in the report, HRW gives a sanctimonious advice in the following words:

"The Ethiopian government should consider the spread of Internet and other communications technology an important opportunity. Encouraging the growth of the telecommunications sector is crucial for the country to modernize and achieve its ambitious economic growth targets".

For an objective observer, it is obvious that such a self-righteous sermon is misplaced and unnecessary, especially from those, who insist on the privatization of telecom services – without regard to its negative impact on expansion of the service to rural areas. In addition to the fact that the Ethiopian government had long started expanding communication infrastructure at a break-neck speed. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet subscription grew by thousands percent each year from year 2000 to 2009.

As far back as 2005, when the role of mobile telephone for rural development was less obvious, the government had set ambitious targets. Such as; enabling every Ethiopian access telecommunication services within 5 km of her residence, increasing Tele-density for fixed line by fivefold and Tele-density for mobile by fifteen-fold, expanding the number of Internet users by more than eleven fold as well as providing 15,000 (almost all then existing) Kebeles with at least five telephones lines.

The report contradicts itself by admitting that Ethiopians' access to telecom services have increased; however, it adds new claims. It says:

"the increasing technological ability of Ethiopians to communicate, express their views, and organize is viewed less as a social benefit and more as a political threat for the ruling party, which depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population."

Firstly, unlike what Human Rights Watch implies claims, the Ethiopian ruling party, EPRDF, had long known and promoted the dynamic role of telecommunication technologies. The expansion of telephone services in the rural areas were hoped to deliver much more than faster exchange of market information for farmers.

Indeed, it was with the explicit objective of expediting public mobilization for development and entrenching participatory democracy that the government launched major ICT projects in 2005; such as, among many, the School Net (to connect 600+ high schools); the Woreda-Net (to connect 600 Woredas) and and the HER Net (for higher education institutions).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to anticipate that these telecom facilities will empower the mass, thereby enhancing its ability to assert its rights and make demands. In fact, the EPRDF not only anticipated that prospect but also wished to make it a reality. Empowering the mass is the underpinning of Revolutionary democracy, unlike the elitist form of democracy promoted by the detractors of EPRDF. That was why, the government, unsatisfied with its impressive achievements, set yet another breath-taking telecom service expansion targets in its current 5-year plan in 2010.

Even after the uprisings in North Africa last year, when the self-appointed human rights advocates, suddenly fell in love with the idea of making telecom accessible to the mass (rather than just for business men and the middle class), the Ethiopian government didn’t blink on telecom expansion projects.

Secondly, it is incredulous that Human Rights Watch claimed "the ruling party depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population."

The EPRDF is an elected government that has no reason to illegally "control its population." Moreover, as pointed out above, it is improbable a government of a developing country to rely on surveillance to "control the population".

The report makes its neo-liberal agenda explicit when it starts advocating for privatization in the middle of a supposedly human rights talk. It said:

"The Ethiopian government has maintained strict control over Internet and mobile technologies so it can monitor their use and limit the type of information that is being communicated and accessed. Unlike most other African countries, Ethiopia has a complete monopoly over its rapidly growing telecommunications sector through the state-owned operator, Ethio Telecom. This monopoly ensures that Ethiopia can effectively limit access to information and curtail freedoms of expression and association."

The report also claimed: "The government has also used its telecom and Internet monopoly to curtail lawful opposition activities."

This claim is factually inaccurate and logically flawed. First, the government keeps the telecom service under state ownership so as to make sure the service is expanded to the entire nation rather than few urban centers as profit-driven private telecom providers would have done.

Second, there is no relationship between a state monopoly and surveillance. In many countries, including the country where HRW Head Quarter is located, governments conduct surveillance without being limited by private ownership of telecom services.


Without going far, let's take a look at Egypt. In that country, according to Wikipedia, "there are numerous (220 according to regulatory authority numbers) Internet service providers (ISPs) in Egypt offering an ADSL service. Four companies own the infrastructure and they are called class A ISPs: (Egynet, LINKdotNET, TE Data, and NOL). Etisalat Egypthas bought both NileOnline and Egynet to expand their Internet presence. They sell to class B ISPs (8 major companies) which, in turn, sell to the rest of the 208 ISPs."

Predictably, the fact that the both the infrastructure and the service is owned by profit-driven private firms limited the provision ADSL technology to select central offices in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria. It took long before it became accessible to other provinces of Egypt.

However, that didn't limit President Mubarak's capacity to monitor even block the internet, as observed in January 2011, when an estimated 93% of Egyptian networks became unreachable. The market fundamentalists do not want to admit that private firms have been complicit in President Mubarak's attempt to stifle the revolutionary youth. However, the real story was revealed by genuine technology gurus. One of them was Renesys, who presented an investigative report as the following:

"We have examined the takedown event more closely, looking at the sequence in which Egyptian service providers removed themselves from the Internet. Our new observation is that this was not an instantaneous event on the front end; each service provider approached the task of shutting down its part of the Egyptian Internet separately.

  • Telecom Egypt (AS8452), the national incumbent, started at 22:12:43.
  • Raya joins in a minute later, at 22:13:26.
  • Link Egypt(AS24863) begins taking themselves down 4 min later, at 22:17:10.
  • Etisalat Misr (AS32992) goes two minutes later, at 22:19:02
  • Internet Egypt (AS5536) goes six minutes later, at 22:25:10.

This sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced."

Therefore, Egypt is a proof that privatization is not a guarantee against internet monitoring. A government does not need to have monopoly to exercise control over the service. The best protection of citizens comes from a strong constitution, such as the privacy provisions in Constitution of FDRE, and a government that constantly empowers and participate the citizens. It is incredulous that Human Rights Watch believes that profit-driven private telecom companies and a rent-seeking political economy would have the will or motivation to protect the privacy rights of citizens.

At some point in the report, Human Rights Watch's admits that "all governments around the world engage in surveillance". Nonetheless, it reveals its ignorance of the facts on the ground claiming that "in most countries at least some judicial and legislative mechanisms are in place to protect privacy and other rights. In Ethiopia these mechanisms are largely absent".

Quite to the contrary, Ethiopia has one of the most liberal Constitutional provisions to protect the right of citizens and anyone who resides in the territory. Unlike some western countries, that protection was not included by way of amendment. It was put there from the beginning. The Constitution of FDRE provides on Article 26:

Article 26 Right to Privacy

1. Everyone shall have the right to his privacy and physical integrity. This right shall include protection from searches of his person, his home, his property and protection from seizure of property under his possession.

2. Private postal correspondence as well as other communications through the telephone, telecommunications and other electronic devices shall be inviolable.

3. Government officials shall have the duty to respect and enforce these rights. Exercise of these rights may only be restricted by laws enacted for purposes of prevention of crimes, protection of national security, public peace, public health and morality, rights and freedoms of others or in periods of emergency.

Human Rights Watch attempts to bolster its dubious claims in the following words:

"During interrogations, police show suspects lists of phone calls and are questioned about the identity of callers, particularly foreign callers. They play recorded phone conversations with friends and family members. The information is routinely obtained without judicial warrants. While this electronic “evidence” appears to be used mostly to compel suspects to confess or to provide information, some recorded emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the repressive Anti-Terrorism Proclamation."

The self-contradiction in the statement is obvious to any reader. If most of the electronic evidence were not presented in court, how can Human Rights Watch know that his informants are telling the truth? Or, even if true, could the interrogators be tricking using a mental game on the suspects into revealing information, as most police officers around the world do?

Moreover, assuming the police really used such evidence for interrogation, how does Human Rights Watch know it was obtained without warrant? Is Human Rights Watch admitting that suspects in Ethiopian prison have the freedom to ask the interrogators where they got information? Why would not the police use such evidences in court? Is Human Rights Watch admitting that Ethiopian courts dismiss illegally obtained evidences?

We can ask many questions that Human Rights Watch can't and won't answer. Nonetheless, let's present the reality with the Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law [Proc. No. 652/2009].

Indeed the list of admissible evidences, under Article 23 of Ethiopia's anti- Terrorism legislation, includes: “...digital or electronic evidences; evidences gathered through interception or surveillance or information obtained through interception conducted by foreign law enforcement bodies; and confession of a suspect of terrorism in writing, voice recording, video cassette or recorded in any mechanical or electronic device.”

However, the legislation clearly and strictly prescribes that any police search should be supported by court warrant. In fact it further restricts warrants given to conduct such searches in Article 18 as follows:

18.1/ The court on the basis of the information presented to it by the applicant, may give covert search warrant by having into consideration:
a) the nature or gravity of the terrorist act or the suspected terrorist act; and b) the extent to which the measures to be taken in accordance with the warrant would assist to prevent the act of terrorism or arrest the suspect.

18.2/ A warrant issued in accordance with this Article shall specify:
a) the address of any premise to which the warrant relates, and the names of the occupiers, if known; b) the maximum duration being 30 days, the period during which the warrant is valid and the date on which the warrant is issued; and c) if necessary, the type or description of evidences to be searched for and seized

Moreover, we shall notice that these evidentiary rules are similar to those in Germany, Italy and Norway. In Germany, intelligence is admissible as evidence in connection with a defined list of serious crimes, which includes terrorist activities. Italian laws give the police and other investigating authorities the powers to conduct the interception of communications.

Norway's anti-terrorism legislations permit for police surveillance (including electronic and technical measures) of individuals if there are good grounds for believing a terrorist act is being prepared. A court must approve any such surveillance, however, the hearings are closed and a security cleared defense lawyer will be appointed. The defense lawyers are not informed of their client’s name or names.

Is Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation, different from those?

Human Rights Watch's report gets into appalling extent when it makes itself an attorney of terrorist organizations. The report claimed: 

"prominent individuals suspected of being connected with opposition political parties and armed movements, especially Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), are frequently the focus of targeted telecom surveillance."

"the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was initially a political party, but began a low-level armed insurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region in response to what it perceived to be the EPRDF’s failure to respect regional autonomy, and to consider demands for self-determination".

"OLF is not a terrorist threat either. ONLF is the only real threat. Oromo people, especially the young, still have sentiment for OLF. They [the authorities] use OLF to marginalize Oromos—there is a threat from the idea of OLF, but not from the actual OLF".

It is mesmerizing that Human Rights Watch chose to align itself with such groups which are known as violent groups who employ all means including terrorism to dismantle the constitutional order and change government by force.

For example, Ginbot 7 is a group that officially declared its plan to bring an unconstitutional change of government in Ethiopia.

As Sudan Tribune had reported a few months ago, Birhanu Nega, chairman of Ginbot 7, received 9.5 million birr from Eritrea. The news revealed:

"The Eritrean government has offered $500,000 to Ginbot 7, an exiled Ethiopian opposition political organization designated by Ethiopia as terrorist entity, according to a report on a US-based Ethiopia opposition media outlet.....Berhanu Nega admits that he received the funds."

Similarly, the recent Human Rights and Practices report of the United States revealed that: "In numerous cases NGOs deferred travel to program activity sites due to insecurity. On June 13, ONLF gunmen fired on a mobile health and nutrition team supported by the UN Children’s Fund in Korahe zone and seriously injured one person."

ONLF's terrorist credentials were re-confirmed by a UN report. It explicitly stated that ONLF activities are at the behest of Eritrea, which the group said is responsible for continued and widespread   efforts   at   destabilization   the   Horn   of  Africa   through “operations using proxy forces that fall under direct Eritrean command and control falsely flagged as domestic opposition groups, in violation of [UN Security Council] resolution”.

There are also similar credible reports with regard to the OLF. The UN monitoring group for Somalia and Eritrea July 2011 report that was submitted to the Secretary General disclosed that:

"In early 2011, Ethiopian intelligence and federal police disrupted a conspiracy to bomb targets in and around Addis Ababa at the time of the sixteenth ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union, which was scheduled to take place on 30 and 31 January 2011. Although ostensibly an OLF operation, it was conceived, planned, supported and directed by the external operations directorate of the Government of Eritrea, under the leadership of General Te’ame. If executed as planned, the operation would almost certainly have caused mass civilian casualties, damaged the Ethiopian economy and disrupted the African Union summit."

It is very sad that Human Rights Watch presents these groups as a legitimate local opposition than a national security concern. In fact, it appears that Human Rights Watch's informants are none but operatives of these groups who are designated as terrorists not only by Ethiopia but also by Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and other countries in the region.

At this point, it should be clear for any reader that the latest report is none but just another demonstration of Human Rights Watch's smear-campaign and ideological attack on the Ethiopian government. A campaign of demonizing government and of promoting known terrorist organizations, so that to stop development assistances for the provision of schools and health centers for the poor.

Human Rights Watch failed to learn the resolve of the government and peoples of Ethiopia to continue the current democratic-developmental path. Piles of hearsay reports cannot divert Ethiopia from its commitment to development and succumb to the demands of the neo-liberal forces.

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