Ethiopia blocks opposition Web sites -watchdog

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Internet watchdog on Tuesday accused Ethiopia of blocking scores of anti-government Web sites and millions of blogs in one of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest cases of cyber-censorship.

Web monitor, the OpenNet Initiative, said the Horn of Africa country was stopping citizens from viewing opposition-linked Web sites, and blogs hosted by Blogger, an online journal community owned by Internet search engine Google Inc.

Ethiopia dismissed the report as “a baseless allegation”.

“We may have technical problems from time to time,” Information Ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle. “But we have not done anything like that and we have no intention of doing anything like that.”

The OpenNet Initiative -- a partnership between Harvard Law School, and universities of Toronto and Cambridge and Oxford -- said it had gathered proof of interference.

“We have run diagnostic tests using volunteers in Ethiopia which indicate that they are blocking IP addresses,” OpenNet research director Robert Faris said, referring to the unique numeric addresses of Web sites.

“The evidence is overwhelming that that is what they are doing. ... Most of the sites that we found blocked were related to freedom of expression, human rights and political opposition,” he said by telephone from the United States.

The allegations could be embarrassing for the Ethiopian government, which is a major ally of the United States in Africa and has been criticized for a post-election crackdown on opposition that killed nearly 200 people in 2005.

“I think it’s a decision that makes the Ethiopian government look extremely hostile to free speech and to open political discourse,” said Ethan Zuckerman, research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in the United States.

The Ethiopian blockages are part of a growing global trend, Faris said.

“As recently as five years ago, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia were the only countries that were filtering the Internet. Now we have found two dozen,” he added.

The full list of countries will be published later this year in a book entitled “Access Denied: the Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering.”

OpenNet found some filtering of pornographic and political Web sites in Islamic north African countries including Tunisia.

Some pornographic and anti-Islamic sites were also blocked in Sudan, although the Web sites of many human rights groups critical of the situation in Darfur remained visible.

But it found no evidence to back up reports of online censorship in Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Ethiopia was the only widespread campaign identified in sub-Saharan Africa, the OpenNet report said.

Ethiopia has one of the world’s lowest Internet access rates -- only two out of every thousand Ethiopians were logging on in 2003, according to the United Nations Development Program’s latest Human Development Report.

But it also has one of Africa’s healthiest blogging scenes, fuelled by a handful of anonymous writers in the capital Addis Ababa and the large communities of politically active Ethiopians in the United States and Europe.

OpenNet said many of Ethiopia’s blogs were caught in a blanket blockage of Google’s Blogger service, home to millions of blogs worldwide, most having nothing to do with politics.