The Tragedy of Ethiopia's Internet
Ethiopia turned its fledgling internet into a surveillance machine.
Illustrations by Shaye Anderson
Nafkot Nega thinks journalists are terrorists. When I visited him and his mother, Serkalem Fassil, at their tiny apartment in the outskirts of Washington, DC, in early January, 9-year-old Nafkot intermittently murmured and jabbed his hands, pretending to be a superhero fighting criminals.
Perhaps some of those criminals were journalists like his father, Eskinder Nega, who was convicted of violating Ethiopia's anti-terror law in July 2012. Eskinder is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence.
"Journalism is a crime or a terrorist act in his mind because what has been portrayed about [his dad]," Serkalem explained to me through a translator. "Not only his dad, but if you mention any journalist he will scream and say 'I don't like journalists!'"
Their story is a weaving tale that mirrors how Ethiopia, home to over 90 million people, became a digital hermit nation. How Nafkot come to believe journalism is a crime equivalent to terrorism is a case study of how governments have used the internet as a tool for repression.
The only way to access the internet in Ethiopia is through the government-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, which has unilateral control over the telecom industry. A burgeoning tech scene in neighboring Kenya, which has an internet penetration rate of 69.6 percent, has garnered the name "Silicon Savannah." But in Ethiopia, the monopoly on internet access has created one of the most disconnected countries in the world.
Only 3.7 percent of Ethiopians have access to the internet, according to the latest data, one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. By comparison, South Sudan, which lacks most basic government services, has an internet penetration rate of 15.9 percent. There are only ten countries with lower internet penetration than Ethiopia. Most of them, such as Somalia and North Korea, are hampered by decades-long civil wars or largely sealed off from outside world.
As one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with one of the most storied cultures in the world, Ethiopia's lack of internet access is astounding. It's also troubling.
It's unclear exactly how many Ethiopians can access the internet. Those who can, however, must contend with the specter of state surveillance. The Ethiopian government is suspected of deploying spyware and other hacking and surveillance tools to surveil individuals, including at least one American citizen, hooked to the web. Because of these alleged cybersleuthing efforts, the Ethiopian government has turned an engine of commerce and information into an afterthought and an instrument of surveillance.
Former American diplomats, current members of Ethiopia's intelligence agency, and foreign policy experts all told me that the Ethiopian government is afraid of dissident views spreading online, and has crafted its intelligence service, telecom sector, and legal codes to stamp out digital dissent.
Perhaps the foremost victim of the country's internet crusade is young Nafkot, who believes his father is a terrorist because he's a journalist. Nafkot's parents were two of the most well-known journalists in Ethiopia; Eskinder and Serkalem were internationally award winning media moguls, who began their respective careers after the communist Derg regime fell in 1987, and a new government formed in 1991. After a disputed parliamentary election where ensuing protests turned violent in 2005, both Eskindir and Serkalem were arrested.
Unbeknownst to either of them, Serkalem was pregnant.
The prohibitive factors that cause Ethiopia's digital divide are straightforward. The monopoly on internet access has made it prohibitively expensive for many citizens to get online. Routine service outages make connections unreliable. And for those Ethiopians who do manage to access the internet, there is little content available in the local language of Amharic.
Whether these barriers to internet access are the intended result of a system designed to limit the spread of information, or the unintentional byproduct of a monopolistic cash cow is about as murky as the country's dealings in cyber-espionage.
"Ethiopia wants to maintain as much control as possible over the internet so that it can prevent internal comments that are critical of government policies and minimize access to critical comments originating outside Ethiopia," David Shinn, the former American ambassador to Ethiopia, told me.
A member of the Information Network Security Agency, one of Ethiopia's intelligence agencies, also told me the monopoly purposefully limited internet access to preserve security in the country.
"Everything connected to the internet is slowing down"
"It's because of security reasons, and I don't think there is anything related to that other than this," said the official, who works on technical capabilities and spoke on the condition on anonymity because he did not want to talk about his employer. "Everything connected to the internet is slowing down. Entrepreneurs can't create their companies."
Ethiopia is among a constellation of African nations made of patchworks of ethnic identity, and Bronwyn Bruton, the Deputy Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, told me that the government has led the fractured country by limiting freedom of expression.
"The Ethiopian state is very fragile," Bruton said. "It's built on a premise of segregation that is in theory separate but equal, however in practice dominated by one ethnic group, the Tigray. The Tigreans are only about six percent of the population but they absolutely dominate political and economic power."
When I asked Teressa Belete, the Chief Enterprise Officer at Ethio Telecom, if the lack of internet access was a deliberate result of the government to limit free speech and dissent, he seemed genuinely confused and dismissed the idea. The advantage of a government monopoly, Belete said, is that rural Ethiopians, who make up a majority of the country's population, wouldn't be serviced by private companies with profit motives.
Yet Ethio Telecom, which was founded in 1952, made an estimated $300 million profit per year, as The Economist reported in 2012. And Ethio Telecom used the excess funds to bankroll railway development in the country.
"The country lags far behind in terms of liberalization of the [telecommunications] sector," said Lishan Adam, a consultant who has worked with the World Bank on information and communications tech policy. "They missed most of the liberalization era in the 1990s, and there was a delay in terms of getting internet."
Adam told me Ethiopia only became connected to the internet in 1997, and said that while the desire to limit free speech might be a factor in the lack of internet access, it wasn't the main reason why most Ethiopians aren't online.
Ethiopia's internet penetration rate is reported to be 3.7 percent as of November 2015. Ethiopian officials take issue with that figure, reported by the World Bank. They argue it's inaccurate because it doesn't fully account for mobile subscribers. The World Bank's numbers do include mobile subscribers, but it's likely the reported number is still too low, and Adam estimated that the true internet penetration rate is between five and 15 percent of the population.
Nafkot was born in prison in 2006. He was premature and couldn't breathe at room temperature. Doctors wanted to move him immediately to a hospital with incubators, but the only hospital that could admit him required a signed form one of his parents. Serkalem was still under anesthesia, and the police wouldn't bring the form to Eskindir. Nafkot could not get the treatment he needed.
"They didn't really care about his life, but for the grace of God survived," Serkalem said, her voice rising with anger.
Nafkot stayed at his grandparent's home until Serkalem and Eskinder were released from prison. At which point, Serkalem and Eskinder could not continue working as print journalists; along with most of the independent newspapers in the country, theirs were shut down. Serkalem stopped writing altogether. Eskinder began blogging online, one of the first in the country to do so.
"He turned to blogging because all of the other avenues were closed," Serkalem said. "Although he knew that not many had internet access in Ethiopia, it was better than being silent. He knew it wasn't going to do much, but he needed to write."
The internet penetration rate in Ethiopia was 0.2 percent in 2005, and it is believed by internet security experts that the government's online censorship began in 2006, the year Eskinder started blogging. Opposition websites inside Ethiopia became inaccessible that year, and the government was assumed to be behind the censorship.
Before parliamentary elections in 2010, the Ethiopian government introduced a vague anti-terrorism law in an effort to avoid another contested election, Jeffrey Smith, an international human rights expert based in Washington, DC, told me. The law has become a cornerstone of the government's censorship, labeling anyone who "influences government" a "terrorist."
"Ethiopia is an example of a ruling regime that uses the term 'terrorism' as a politically expedient term," Smith said. "The terrorism concerns inside the country are real but they have gone way beyond that, and have systematically abused human rights."
With the Arab Spring protests in late 2010, there was hope the anti-government rallies that began in Tunisia would spread to Ethiopia. Eskinder's blogging was provocative and confrontational during this time. In one 2011 article he prodded the Ethiopian military to choose the side of the people like the Egyptian military did at the time.
"Ordinary citizens took the initiative all over North Africa and the Middle East," Eskinder wrote in another post, published September 2, 2011. "The results made history. They are powerful precedents for the rest of humanity. While inspiring words, sober analyses and robust debates are indispensable as ever, they will remain exactly no more than mere words unless translated into actions. To Ethiopia this means risking the core of a much cherished collective vision—peaceful transition to democracy."
"No school for me"
On September 14, 2011, while Eskinder was picking up Nafkot from school, the Ethiopian intelligence service surrounded Eskinder's car and arrested him. Serkalem raced to the scene. She found Nafkot crying, but no Eskinder. Serkalem took Nafkot to his grandmother's house, then went straight to the Maekelawi prison, notorious for practices of torture. She waited for three hours for Eskinder to show up. But he never did.
That's because Eskinder was actually at their house, watching the intelligence service rifle through the family's belongings. Serkalem recalled that when she returned home the intelligence officers tried to stop her from entering, but she forced herself through to reach Eskinder. Panicked, she yelled out to him.
"Calm down, and be courageous!" Eskinder shouted back. Then he was taken away.
Afterward, Serkalem went to pick up 5-year-old Nafkot. The boy was clearly traumatized from witnessing his father arrested at school. The next day, Nafkot didn't want to go back.
"No school for me," he said.
The Ethiopian intelligence apparatus is one of the most invasive in the world. Exiled Ethiopian journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, told me of being followed or snooped on by government agents who had no interest in hiding their identity. One Ethiopian businessman joked to me about how he wouldn't be surprised if he heard a third-party cough while talking with someone over the phone.
Felix Horne, the Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of a comprehensive report on the Ethiopian surveillance agency, told me that the government has a nationwide program called "five to one." It's an all-seeing system in which five citizens are monitored by one individual. It is like a listening node in a system that spans the entire country with the goal to preserve command over its many ethnic groups.
"The Ethiopian government, like many other governments, appears to be using hacking tools to supplement their regular surveillance regime" said Bill Marczak, a research fellow at Citizen Lab. The Ethiopian government's traditional surveillance methods are "effective for someone who is looking inside Ethiopia, but one of the features of Ethiopia is it has a very large diaspora community spread out over many different countries in the world."
Washington, DC, has around a quarter million Ethiopian expatriates, and there is a large presence in Europe, Marczak added. And there is "no way other than hacking, phishing, and targeted attacks to monitor these people."
When Neamin Zeleke received an email in December 2014 claiming to have inside information about a sensitive subject in Ethiopia, his home country, he recognized it as a likely hack. Zeleke was managing director of Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT), one of the largest Ethiopian news outlets, and run by members of the country's diaspora. Its website and TV service are banned in the country. But Ethiopians can still access the channel and website through satellites and proxy servers.
Zeleke told me that ESAT satellite service has been jammed 20 times by the government. The latest jam, he said, happened just a few minutes before he and I met in early January. He forwarded the suspicious email to Marczak of Citizen Lab, who recognized that it carried a low-level bug likely from Hacking Team, a provider of surveillance software to governments across the world.
Using software from Hacking Team, an Italian company, and likely the Gamma Group, a European company, the Ethiopian intelligence service has targeted journalists and political opponents with invasive systems that allow the government to remotely activate a computer camera and microphone, record keystrokes, and monitor online activity. The frequency of these attacks and other surveillance capability is obscured by the inherent secrecy of spycraft, and that the targets of these hacks either don't know, or don't want to share that they've been infiltrated makes it difficult to assess the tools and motivations of their hacking, Marczak told me.
Zeleke is both a journalist and a political opponent. He is a member of Ginbot 7, an armed opposition group in Ethiopia that is labeled a terrorist organization by the government. Security experts told me that there is no evidence Ginbot 7 has ever undertaken terrorist activity, and the organization is not on the US State Department's list of terror organizations.
Ginbot 7 is largely a collection of exiled Ethiopians who operate outside the borders of the country they wish to change. According to an ESAT report, Ginbot 7 has attacked government soldiers, which Zeleke confirmed to me.
Zeleke stepped down as managing director of ESAT in early 2016. He didn't have the time for it anymore, and told me he was worried he could no longer be objective. He is now a consultant for the organization, though he still holds a corner office in the station's tiny studio, which is lined with awards from prestigious human rights organizations.
One of the awards was for Eskinder Nega.
Zeleke told me ESAT took the award on behalf of Eskinder, who "was considered one of the pioneers of independent media in Ethiopia."
In the ESAT news bullpen, and also next to Eskinder's award in Zekele's office, was a large portrait of Andargachew Tsige, the founder of Ginbot 7, in military fatigues. Tsige is believed to be under arrest in Ethiopia. Zeleke lept toward me when I tried to take a photo of the portrait next to Eskinder's award.
"I don't think that's appropriate for this story," Naimin said, moving Tsige's photo out of the shot.
Later, I asked Zeleke if he thought the Ethiopian government was targeting him and other ESAT journalists because of their dissident views, or because the government perceives the organization as affiliated with Ginbot 7. What if authorities didn't know where Zeleke's political activity ends, and his journalism begins? It wouldn't justify the surveillance. But because there have been so few public cases of the Ethiopian government's targets, the distinction could illuminate the motivations of the intelligence service's hacking—primarily to stop the flow of information, or targeting perceived political threats.
The head of the government agency that runs Ethiopia's hacking, the INSA, declined to comment for this story.
The real punishment wasn't his time wasted behind bars. It was seeing Nafkot suffer without a father
Zeleke told me that the Ethiopian government is monitoring ESAT because it is a political organization affiliated with Ginbot 7, but it is a fully independent organization and the journalists are from across the political spectrum.
"The fact that I am affiliated with Ginbot 7 may be a factor, but without me being here, whoever is the head of ESAT, these journalists [would be attacked]," he told me. "Others, many others who are not Ginbot 7, thousands of others, are subject to cyberattacks and surveillance. So, I mean, logically you have to see the context. This is a routine practice by the police, an authoritarian state to control the populous, to control the flow of information, and to intimidate alternative media and political dissenters."
Serkalem and Nafkot would visit Eskinder in prison every Saturday and Sunday after he was sentenced. Eskinder tried to convince Nafkot that he was just in school, not at prison, to make the burden of an absent father easier on his young son. Born in a prison, Nafkot recognized that his father wasn't in school.
"No, you're in jail," he would say to his dad.
Nafkot Nega believes that the profession of his parents is a crime equivalent to terrorism. Innovative industries in Ethiopia have been hamstrung to preserve this philosophy, and those who do access the internet are targets of relentless hacking.
When they visited, Serkalem told me the jail staff would humiliate inmates in front of their families. Eskinder grew concerned that Nafkot would become desensitized to the brutality and grow resentful of the world.
"It's OK to be jailed for what you believe in, but to see the impact on your family and your son, he couldn't bear, and asked me to take him away," Serkalem told me. The real punishment wasn't his time wasted behind bars. It was seeing Nafkot suffer without a father.
Eskinder started to ask his wife and son the same question each time they visited: "Have you bought your ticket?" He also pressed other family members and friends who visited to convince Serkalem and Nafkot to leave Ethiopia, so he could finish his time with the peace of mind that his family would be safe.
The last time Nafkot saw his father was July 23, 2014. Serkalem had purchased two tickets for the United States the next day, and Eskinder tried to cheer up his son during their last visit.
"America is right nearby!" he exclaimed.
Serkalem told me she wants to create a positive memory for Nafkot of his father. She wants to convince her son that his father's sacrifice as not in vain. Eskinder is scheduled to be released from prison in 2030, when Nafkot will be 23 years old—the same age Eskinder opened his first newspaper in Ethiopia.