The annual U.N. General Assembly meeting provides an unparalleled opportunity for world leaders to take to the bully pulpit of the U.N. chamber and trumpet their country’s achievements or slam their enemies.
Last month, presidents, kings and prime ministers talked about the dangers of climate change, progress made in development goals, the threats of terrorism or their responses to the global immigration crisis. But when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn took the podium Sept. 21, the global challenge he had in mind was perhaps unexpected: social media.
There were many other things he could have discussed, including Ethiopia’s impressive investments in infrastructure like hydroelectric dams and its high growth rates — or even a devastating drought that the government and its international partners have confronted this past year.
“We are seeing how misinformation could easily go viral via social media and mislead many people, especially the youth,” he said. “Social media has certainly empowered populists and other extremists to exploit people’s genuine concerns and spread their message of hate and bigotry without any inhibition.”
The state has singled out social media as being a key factor in driving the unrest now gripping the country. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are now largely blocked in the country, as is Internet on mobile phones, which is how most people in this country of 94 million find their way online.
For much of last year, Ethiopians, especially in the vast Oromo community, have been protesting the government over corruption, lack of jobs and poor administration. Their efforts have been championed by many Ethiopian dissidents living abroad, especially in the United States, who have held rallies for them and bombarded social media sites with denunciations of the regime’s harsh suppression of protests.
After at least 55 people were killed in a stampede at the Irreecha cultural festival Oct. 2, overseas activists called for “five days of rage,” and for the next week, factories, government buildings and tourist lodges were attacked across the Oromo region in a spasm of violence that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency Oct. 9.
While Ethiopia is nominally a democracy, the ruling party and its allies hold every seat in parliament, and it is described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the most censored countries in the world and a top jailer of journalists.
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Now, however, with the Internet and the technologies it has spawned — which the government has spent millions developing the necessary infrastructure for — more and more dissident voices are being heard, but often without the restraint or commitment to accuracy of more mainstream media.
“I am fairly certain the restrictions they have put in place now are less about silencing Ethiopians and more about restricting the influence of the diaspora,” said Nicholas Benequista, a former journalist who worked in Ethiopia and is now the research manager for the U.S.-based Center for International Media Assistance.
“Ethiopia is more vulnerable to the rumor, misinformation and provocation coming out of the diaspora because it has prevented an independent, professional and ethical media from growing inside the country,” he added. “I actually think they are beginning to realize that.”
In the wake of the Irreecha tragedy, Jawar Mohammed, a Minneapolis-based Oromo activist and head of the opposition Oromo Media Network, posted on his Facebook page that troops had fired on the crowd with live ammunition while helicopter gunships mowed down innocent protesters — something that journalists and witnesses there said simply did not happen.
In a strange twist, the government, which often interferes with foreign journalists attempting to report across the country, ended up citing Western media reports that none of the victims exhibited gunshot wounds to bolster their version of events.