Ethiopia Shuts Down Internet amid Protests over Death of Singer

Hachalu Hundessa in an image still from the video of his ballad “Maalan Jira.”
screenshot/“Maalan Jira”

Authorities in Ethiopia imposed a nationwide shutdown of the Internet on Tuesday amid protests over the death of a prominent musician and political activist, Internet monitoring organizations and rights groups have confirmed.

Hachalu Hundessa, a famous singer, artist, and activist, was shot dead in the capital of Addis Adaba on Monday. The motive for his killing is not yet clear, although he previously played a prominent role in the 2018 protests that led to a change in government.

Widespread demonstrations broke out on Tuesday, with reports of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, killing as many as 50. While footage of such civil unrest would typically be spread across social media, internet-monitoring NGO Netblocks confirmed that access to the internet had been “cut across most of Ethiopia from just after 9 am local time on Tuesday.”

“This is a whole country that has been taken offline,” Alp Toker, CEO of NetBlocks, told Euronews. “This is an effort to switch off communications both internally inside the country, but also to prevent communications with the outside.”

Berhan Taye, a senior policy analyst from the digital rights group Access Now, added that the shutdown was causing further anxiety among Ethiopians.

“This shutdown comes at a time when the country is mourning the loss of a beloved musician and a courageous activist and millions are calling for justice for Haacaaluu,” he said. “Access to credible information is essential at times of crisis and emergency, and this current internet shutdown is causing further confusion, powerlessness, and anxiety among Ethiopians and the diaspora.”

According to Amnesty International, Hundessa played an important role in promoting visibility for the Oromo ethnic group and his songs inspired many young people to protest against the government.

“There must be justice for the killing of Hachalu Hundesa. The musician’s songs rallied the country’s youth in sustained protests from 2015 leading to the political reforms witnessed in the country since 2018,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

“The authorities have opened an investigation into his killing and must now ensure it is prompt, thorough, impartial, independent and effective and bring to justice in fair trials those suspected to be responsible,” she continued. “The authorities should immediately lift the countrywide blanket internet shutdown and allow people to access information and to freely mourn the musician.”

Despite their apparent attempt to crack down on protests and the spread of information, many Ethiopian politicians paid tribute to Hundessa, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who described him as a “magnificent and vibrant young artist.” The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also expressed his “deepest condolences” at his murder.

It is not the first time that Ethiopia’s government has shut down the Internet, having repeatedly employed the tactic during elections and periods of civil unrest. This is made far easier by the fact that the company’s only telecommunications provider, Ethio Telecom, is owned by the government.

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