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Ethiopia Prepares to Host UN Internet Forum Amid Tigray Blackout

FILE - A woman attempts to get a mobile phone signal after most of an area was in blackout, in Samre, southwest of Mekele in Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 20, 2021.
FILE - A woman attempts to get a mobile phone signal after most of an area was in blackout, in Samre, southwest of Mekele in Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 20, 2021.

Ethiopia is set to host the U.N.'s annual Internet Governance Forum later this month, despite an ongoing communications blackout in its war-damaged Tigray region. The government-imposed blackout in the Tigray region has left six million people without phone or internet access for nearly two years.

The November 28 forum is expected to draw over 2,500 delegates to Addis Ababa, one of the largest international gathering in Ethiopia's capital in years.

Those not able to attend in person will be able to log in virtually to hear sessions dealing with topics such as "connecting all people" and "meaningful access" to the internet.

People living in Tigray will not be tuning in, however. The northern region was subjected to one of the world's tightest communications blackouts, when war broke out between the federal military and forces led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or the TPLF, in November 2020.

A peace deal struck earlier this month commits the federal government to restoring the services, but the blackout is still firmly in place.

As a result, the U.N.'s decision to hold the event in Ethiopia has raised eyebrows. On November 15, Senator Jim Risch, who chairs the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, described the decision as "wrong," saying the forum should be held in a country that "doesn't regularly block its citizens' internet access."

This week, technology minister Huria Ali defended Ethiopia's role as host. She said that reforms undertaken by her government since it replaced a coalition led by the TPLF in 2018 mean Ethiopia currently enjoys "freedom of expression unparalleled in its history."

"To mention a few, always sites that were blocked by the previous government were unblocked," she said. "Political prisoners were freed, and all the exiled politicians were invited back home, the 2020 election was by any standard the election where opponents freely aired their agendas."

Alluding to the blackout, Huria added that the government had been forced to take activities "to protect the country" during the conflict with Tigray, which has left hundreds of thousands dead and uprooted millions.

The blackout in Tigray is not the only shutdown in Ethiopia. Communications have also been turned off in parts of Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region, where an armed group is battling the government.

Addis Ababa was left without internet for weeks in 2020, following a wave of violence that was sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician.

Felicia Anthonio, a manager at internet rights group Access Now, said the internet forum is an "opportunity" to highlight the blackout affecting Tigray.

"Ethiopia's government has been responsible for a two-year-long internet blackout and must take urgent steps to restore full intent access in Tigray and all parts of the country," she said. "The African Union and member states have a clear mandate to promote and protect human rights in Africa, and this is the moment for them to step up and help facilitate an end to this internet blockade."

Redwan Hussein, the Ethiopian prime minister's national security advisor, has said services are being restored to Tigray. But for now, the region remains cut off from the outside world.