Concerning Tigray and internet shutdowns

2 March 2023

Image of a protest about the war in Tigray. Many red flags with a yellow star are waved by protesters.
Tigrayan activists call for the internet shutdown and genocide in Tigray to end. Image by Annette Dubois, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The text below was originally published as a Twitter thread on 1 December, 2022, the same day that the Internet Governance Forum held its main session “Connecting all people and safeguarding human rights” in Ethiopia. The session – and the forum as a whole – failed to address the urgent human rights violations and connectivity issues in Tigray.

For years, the Ethiopian government has relied on its dominance as a telecoms and internet provider to cut groups out of the web, hide war crimes and human rights violations. A region currently facing a genocide by the Ethiopian government is Tigray, an area in the north of the country. Since 2020, the government has engineered the longest continuous internet shutdown in the world, keeping Tigrayans isolated in the middle of a war that has cost their livelihood and lives. 

Despite Ethiopia’s weaponizing of internet shutdowns against the people in Tigray, Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2022 took place in the country. How can we talk about governance and internet access when internet shutdowns are being used as a tool for genocide?

It is ironic – and an act of complicity – that this major global forum on internet access and policies chooses Ethiopia as a venue, after years of violence and repression against Tigrayans, including blockages to humanitarian aid. Tigrayan voices should be at the center of discussions about a safe and free internet, yet these voices and the facts of internet shutdowns in the region are deliberately excluded from global conversations, such as IGF. The Internet Governance Forum needs to be accountable for its role in silencing these voices.

Listening to Tigrayan activists

At Whose Knowledge?, we boycotted this conference — a position that isn’t held by many friends and allies. But the most important voices to be centered are not ours. So, instead of being at IGF, we held space for Tigrayan activists to tell the world why the internet shutdown is also a shutdown of life. We co-organized a solidarity panel to hold and amplify the leadership and knowledge of Tigrayan activists, and be witnesses to their pain, anger, and disappointment. These activists live in constant pain and uncertainty about their family and friends in the region. The only way they hear from them is through rare audio notes, because of the internet shutdown. 

Mulu Beyene, a Tigrayan lawyer who has taught human rights and international humanitarian law, explains how the movement to end the shutdown goes beyond access to the internet.

“It’s much more than a communication barrier. It affects your health, [the] livelihood of people in many ways”.

Melat Habtu, an activist in the advocacy team of the Tigray Youth Network, highlights the surface level of engagement that many states and civil society organizations — beyond the IGF in 2022 — have with the genocide in Tigray. 

Despite open letters and articles written about the Tigrayan genocide, organizations fall short in demanding accountability and the end to the shutdown and the human rights violations in the region. The Internet Governance Forum in 2022 was a crystal-clear example, being held in Ethiopia. As Selam G. points out, this is an endorsement of what the Ethiopian government is doing, and “it is disgraceful to see such a well-reputed forum organized in Ethiopia.” 

Apologists for the genocide have accused Tigrayan activists of “misinformation”.

But it is the Ethiopian government that is involved in destroying the evidence – first person testimonies – of atrocities in the region through weaponizing internet shutdowns. Melat explains more in her intervention.

Selam calls for more voices — policymakers, feminist organizations, civil society, and governments — to speak up and push for measures on the ground to reconnect Tigray.

Instead, many organizations participate in “covering such heinous crimes.”

The silencing and lack of accountability for the crimes happening in the region show how “laws and institutions, how the world basically functions, [are] an instance of how unjust the world is,” says Mulu.

IGF 2022 may be at an end, but we must continue pushing for concrete actions to end the internet shutdown in Tigray, and calling out its dire consequences; not silencing them. We must support, center and affirm Tigrayan voices and narratives as we decolonize the internet together. 

Internet shutdowns have no place in a feminist internet

The complicity of human rights defenders, policy advocates, and feminist advocates regarding the internet shutdown in Tigray at IGF 2022 is one way in which internet shutdowns and human rights violations in many countries, including Ethiopia, are sustained.

We say this with care and love to our feminist friends and tech justice allies who were at IGF 2022. Funding and partnerships, especially in the Global South, often rely on participating in these international conferences, but we can do better by Tigray, in solidarity. 

As we Decolonize the Internet, as we work towards a feminist internet, especially as marginalized folks from the Global South, Global Majority world, let’s hold ourselves and our own governments accountable. Colonial technologies shouldn’t be replicated on our own peoples. Let’s do better, together. 

Related Posts

Author Profile