Ethiopia: Confusion over new communication legislation
Ethiopia has passed new legislation that will make the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) like Skype and Google Talk illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The new legislation is not yet in force, but threatens freedom of communication in a country where the government monitors the only telecommunications firm.
State owned Ethio-Telecom, proposed the new law, which was endorsed a few weeks ago, as the country claims to be dealing with external security threats.
The new legislation had for a while escaped local and international attention, but a furore is building in and outside the country.
“If the government starts to control all these activities, this is really a violation of people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression,” said Tesema Molla, who was using Skype in one internet café in Addis Ababa.
The new law might also affect internet cafe owners, who were reporting brisk business thanks to Skype and other VOIP sites.
“People are using all these technologies in my internet cafe. I am not aware about the new legislation,” said Misrak Belay, an internet café owner in the city.
She said she and other internet owners have not yet been informed about the illegality of the service.
“We are really confused what to do. If they start to come and ask me why I am doing it, it is really a serious problem, which will force me to close my business,” said Belay.
According to the new legislation, a one minute call using Skype in Ethiopia can land you a 15-year prison sentence or a huge fine.
The law also gives the government the right to inspect any imported of voice communication equipment as well as the power to ban any inbound packages that do not have prior permission from the state.
A number of sites are blocked in Ethiopia, as the government fears these are used by opposition members and human rights organisation.
The government also jams several radio stations such as the VOA’s Amharic programme, which had become a source of alternative news for many.
Ethiopia accuses the VOA Amharic programme of aggravating and inciting violence, especially after the 2005 election, where about 200 people were killed.
The new legislation is seen as a continuation of government’s plan to stifle access to information.
Ethio-Telecom declined to comment on the new legislation.