No end date for internet blackout in Tigray, says Ethiopia

Charity begins petition for African Union to condemn internet shutdown

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There is “no timeline” for restoring internet access to Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, a senior government official said Tuesday.

Tigray’s internet service will be restored along with its phone and electricity services, although no date has been set, said Belete Molla, Ethiopia’s Minister for Innovation and Technology.

He was speaking at the UN's annual Internet Governance Forum being held this week in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

“The government of Ethiopia is designing a package that is not only about internet resumption but the resumption of everything, because this is what we need as a people, as a government,” Mr Belete said.

“There is no timeline.”

Tigray, home to more than 5 million people, has been mostly without internet, telecommunications and banking since war broke out between federal government troops and forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in November 2020.

A ceasefire deal signed between the warring sides in South Africa this month commits the government to restoring Tigray’s basic services, but the communications blackout has not yet been lifted.

Renewed fighting in August halted aid deliveries to Tigray, which is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

Aid has now started reaching the region, but the World Food Programme said last week that access to parts of Tigray remained “constrained.”

Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimisation Project found that since 2016, authorities have imposed at least 22 internet shutdowns at local and national levels.

The internet access NGO has launched a petition for the African Union and regional states to condemn the shutdown and help to re-establish internet access across the region.

The UN’s decision to hold its flagship event on internet access in Ethiopia has drawn criticism.

This year’s conference aims to build steps towards “universal, affordable and meaningful connectivity,” especially in Africa where 60 per cent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are offline.

Ethiopia has shut down the internet at least 22 times since 2016, according to Access Now.

The blackout affecting Tigray “is the world’s longest uninterrupted shutdown", said Brett Solomon, Access Now’s executive director.

Aid workers and rights groups say the communications blackout has hampered the delivery of aid to Tigray and fuelled human rights abuses by fostering a culture of impunity among armed actors.

UN investigators have accused all sides of abuses, including killings, rape and torture.

Addressing the opening ceremony of the internet forum on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared to defend the shutdown in Tigray.

Mr Abiy said the internet had “supported the spread of disinformation as Ethiopia dealt with an armed rebellion in the northern part of the country".

Updated: June 21, 2023, 9:12 AM