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September 29, 2006

The last word on the Digital Indaba


From jaywalking: cartoons about a way of life. For the full story - or at least most of it - read the GlobalVoices' indaba roundup.

Posted by aheavens at 9:45 AM

September 28, 2006

Blogging off

A little late in the day. But here is the full text of an article I wrote for the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine about the (alledged but denied) great Ethiopian blog blockage.

It was written just before the Blogspot blogs re-appeared. And quickly adjusted just afterwards. The version that made it into the October-December issue was, inevitably, a little squished.

Good quotes from Carpe Diem Ethiopia, Ethan Zuckerman of ...My heart's in Accra and Global Voices and Elijah Zarwan of the OpenNet Initiative.

One day Ethiopia had one of the busiest and fastest-growing blogging scenes in the whole of Africa. The next, more than two-thirds of its online journals simply disappeared.

The missing websites were a mystery for the thousands of Ethiopian internet users who logged on every day for the regular helpings of irreverent commentary from the likes of ethiopundit (www.ethiopundit.blogspot.com), Weichegud ET Politics! (www.weichegud.blogspot.com) and CoffeeChilliSun (www.coffeechillisun.blogspot.com).

When they typed the familiar web addresses into their browsers from late May onwards, all they got was a server error or a blank screen. Without warning or explanation, their favourite reads had just gone.

For the disappearing bloggers themselves, however, it was less of a puzzle as all the sites remained visible to internet users outside Ethiopia.

They started up their computers and fired out a series of diatribes accusing the Ethiopian government of purposefully blocking them from computer screens inside the country.

Ethiopia, they said, had joined a small but growing list of states – chief among them Tunisia within Africa and China without – that had resorted to using cyber-censorship to control dissident voices on the internet.

The Ethiopian government itself was quick to deny the claims. "There are no websites that have been blocked in Ethiopia," Zemedkhun Tekle from the Ministry of Information said. "If there is a problem accessing websites it is a technical problem, and I can't comment on that." No-one was available for comment from Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), Ethiopia's state telecoms monopoly.

But the angry messages from Ethiopia's bloggers soon attracted attention from international internet experts who started looking into the claims.

One of them was Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School in the United States and co-founder of the Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonline.org) – a project that tracks blogs internationally.

"Colleagues of mine in Addis ran experiments to check their connectivity to websites around the world," he said.

"I've reviewed the data from the trace routes they've run. The best explanation I can find for the data is that Ethiopia's internet service provider, ETC, is blocking access to certain internet addresses for Blogger's Blogspot service and for several prominent Ethiopian political blogs hosted on their own servers.”

"It's very unlikely that a ‘technical problem' – as ETC claims – would prevent access only to these politically sensitive sites."

Another leading organisation giving the situation its full attention is the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), backed by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto as well as Harvard and dedicated to documenting internet content filtering by countries and corporations worldwide.

OpenNet experts were half way through a comprehensive scan of Ethiopia's web infrastructure as Focus on Africa went to press. In its African investigations so far, ONI has confirmed pervasive online censorship in Tunisia. Other countries on its watch list include Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Sudan – and now Ethiopia.

"We are finding more and more people that are doing it," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based ONI researcher.

"Over the past couple of years, Western companies have been exporting the technology to filter the internet more and more. In the future we are going to see more countries swapping the expertise. China, for example, recently gave filtering support to the Sudanese.

"In the long term, these countries are fighting a losing battle. When there is a blockage, people will always find a way around it."

Yet the ONI report on Tunisia concluded that its filtering efforts are “focused and effective” and that "the state employs the SmartFilter software to target and prevent access to four types of material in particular: political opposition to the ruling government, sites on human rights in Tunisia, tools that enable users to circumvent these controls, and pages containing pornography or other sexually explicit content”.

Countries use a variety of methods to stop controversial content reaching their citizens. Some force managers of internet cafes to install commercially available filters. Others set up blockages in the central servers and routers that funnel internet traffic into the country.

The motivations behind cyber-censorship also vary. Some states have ethical problems with pornography or websites promoting race-hate and terrorism. Others with less-than-perfect human rights records want to stop internal access to relevant reports from organisations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

Back in Ethiopia, the writer behind the blog Carpe Diem Ethiopia (www.carpediemethiopia.blogspot.com) had no idea which methods were used to keep his words off Ethiopian computer screens. But he said he could guess the motivation.

Carpe Diem was one of a large number of Ethiopian blogs that took a strongly anti-government line after last year's controversial elections. They were won by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party, but were followed by bloody street fights between armed police and protesters that left more than 80 dead.

"If Meles has done his homework, he would know his blog-blocking venture would be tantamount to placing a band-aid on a shotgun wound,” he said.

“Given the negligible gains blog-blocking brings him, he should conclude his cyber censorship is more harmful to his regime's image than the trouble worth going through.”

The virtual disappearances, his blog entry continued, were a way of reminding online commentators of who was in control.

"Our take on why they're doing it? To show you, the editors of news sites and bloggers as well as our readers that they could. It's simple as that. It says, ‘I can reach you.' It says, ‘You're put on notice: I f***ing hate you'.”

* More than ten Ethiopian blogs hosted on the popular Blogspot platform suddenly reappeared on Ethiopian computer screens as Focus on Africa went to press – three months after their initial disappearance. At least seven well-known anti-government websites, however were still missing. Ethiopian internet users had a lot of reading to catch up with after finding that the resilient Blogspot bloggers had kept on writing through the blackout. As the Ethiopian government had always denied that the blogs were blocked in the first place, there was no official explanation for their re-appearance.

Posted by aheavens at 5:12 PM

Where are the pro-government bloggers?

A guy called chubby just left this comment:

hey, i was just wondering are there any pro-meles or government websites? all i can find is one sided against the gov't, would like to see the other side...

There are pro-government websites a plenty - try the Hmbasha Commentary Page or The Ethiopian Herald or the Walta Information Service.

As far as I can tell, however, there are no pro-government blogs (this one is neither pro nor anti). I just had to add the following paragraph to balance out the latest Ethio blog round-up on GlobalVoices (this one about diaspora bloggers pushing for the US Congress to pass House Resolution 5680 - the ‘Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006′):

The political debate in Ethiopia's blogosphere is dominated by anti-government voices. No posts arguing the government's case turned up in a search of Technorati and other sources.

Personally, I think that is a shame. Sometimes the one-sided commentary gets a bit over-powering. Take the story 'Breaking News:Thousands of Soldiers swarm the Meskel square as revolutionary spirit engulfs Addis' on seminawork.

All I can say is that I must be living in a different Addis. There were lots of riot police and a handful of stone-throwers (far fewer than last year). But as for a "revolutionary spirit engulfing Addis" - all I was able to detect from the people I spoke to was a general desire to keep their heads down and celebrate Meskel. The Middle East Times summed up the non-story best with the headline Ethiopia religious holiday unusually quiet.

UPDATE: A rare pro-EPRDF blog has been found. mechachal yichalal is a blog set up to "maybe help heal our peoples animosity towards one another based on political (ethnical) differences. It is hoped that ideas posted here will concentrate on the economical and social well being of Ethiopia" The author writes in the comments below

I started the blog at the height of the 2005 elections and now it takes too much effort to update it. As you can see, the page has not been updated since April '06.

Posted by aheavens at 5:15 AM

September 24, 2006

Random info

Which UK engineering company upgraded Ethiopia's MiG21 aircraft in the runup to the Ethio-Eritrean war?

How many Ethiopians currently hold work permits in the UK?

And what is the UK's position on the imprisonment of CUD MP Kifle Tigneh Abate?

Answers to all of these - and more - questions are available to anyone typing the word 'Ethiopia' into the search box for the online version of Hansard - the official printed transcripts of UK parliamentary debates. Every time a British MP asks a question about Ethiopia, or when a minister talks about it in a speech, everything gets printed online.

Here is a direct link to the Ethiopian search page if you can't be bothered to type in the words yourself. And you can subscribe to an email update if you want to. Just thought someone might be interested.

Posted by aheavens at 5:28 PM

September 22, 2006

Moving on from the Digital Indaba

DSC0014It is now almost a week since the Digital Citizen Indaba - a two-day conference on blogging in Grahamstown (see pic) in the bottom right hand corner of South Africa.

Overall it was a huge success. One way of judging that is to look at all the discussions that are still carrying on in posts and comments and Technorati links. The discussions started with the race debate which I now wish I hadn't joined (there was just something about that pig/hairless-bulldog). But it has now moved on to thinking about what should come next.

mentalacrobatics just suggested some ways forward in his post Let's create and has created a Google discussion group called African bloggers which:

has a simple task but it is a massive one. This group is created with the intention of working towards organizing a conference for African bloggers in 2007. Our discussions within this group will centre around (but may not limited to) sponsorship, dates, venues, facilities, speakers, agenda. This group is open to ANYONE who has a blog.

Let us take all this passion and try to create something positive out of it. Let's quit complaining, defending, attacking and start debating, thinking and creating.

Point taken. So here are some random thoughts that come out of the Indaba and hopefully move beyond it.

  1. First a negative one. Long debates about the definition of blogging, of Web 2.0, of the read-write web, remind me of Elvis Costello's quote that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture". Or the guy who pointed out that the whole academic study of literature had yet to come up with a single useful pointer for the person sitting down to write a novel. Or the obvious point that you can't learn anything useful about journalism through a three-year media studies course. In other words, there is only so much you can gain from theoretical discussions about the nature of blogging. It's better to blog - or to talk about actual things that actual bloggers have done. (This isn't a dig at the Indaba schedule which had an introductory purpose.) Let's assume we all know a blog when we see one and move on to more practical sessions. That's not to stop anyone holding a parallel 'Welcome to blogging' mini-conference which would aim at converting newbies.

  2. The most useful session that I could imagine would be a day-long workshop from the Kenyan blogosphere about how it has managed to pull itself up by its own bootstraps and grow into one of the most vibrant places on the African web. Kenya's bloggers have their own awards, the Kaybees, their own webring Kenya Unlimited and now their own 'eye on the Kenyan parliament' mzalendo. These are all things that could be duplicated in every country on the continent (imagine the impact of an Ethiopian website that followed up on every word spoken in the House of People's Representatives). It would be great to find out how.

  3. It would also be great to get a series of sessions from the Egyptian blogosphere on the way it has turned itself into a real political force. The half-an-hour from Alaa Abd El Fattah of Manal and Alaa's bit bucket and many other things was fascinating but frustratingly short.

  4. About the venue - how about Ethiopia, as the headquarters of the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa (which has lots of conference rooms and WiFi everywhere you go). Or Rwanda, which seems to becoming one of the continent's technology capitals (and soon to become the headquarters of the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System - EASSy)

  5. Presumably there's going to be a Digital Citizen's Indaba 2007. Why not encourage the folks at Rhodes to take it out of South Africa and make it a mobile affair - possibly as the core of this next conference in Addis/Kigali. Or is there any way it could be tied on to TED Africa?

UPDATE: White African challenges everyone to "be proactive and think about what would the makeup would be of the perfect web technology conference" in his post On Being a White Blogging Techie from Africa.

Posted by aheavens at 3:45 AM

September 21, 2006

The really important questions

1. When UN agencies and charities set up huge advertising banners in the centre of Addis Ababa using English-language captions, who are they trying to talk to?

2) Why are you not allowed to take a camera into the post office?

3) Why do you have to get body-scanned twice before you can get on a domestic flight - once before your cup of coffee in the departure lounge, once after it? (For those who haven't been on a domestic flight in Ethiopia, you should know that this is a major trial. The airport has the most sensitive scanning equipment in the world. You have to practically strip naked before you can get through without a beep.)

4) Why do people here drink Nescafé when you can get a cup of the world's best coffee for a few cents from a roasdside stall? (I know, we've been here before.)

Any answers?

Posted by aheavens at 3:20 PM

Lucy's baby

Selam, the oldest child ever discoveredHow often do you get to name a new national icon?

The icon is the one on the left. It is the fossilised skull of a three-year-old girl who died about 3.3 million years ago in what is now Dikika in Ethiopia's Afar region. That makes her the oldest toddler ever discovered.

She was unveiled yesterday in a lecture theatre in the basement of the National Museum in Addis Ababa by proud paleontologist Zeresenay Alemseged (the one on the right) who led the team that found most of her skeleton about five years ago.

At the end of his presentation, he turned to the audience of journalists and academics and politicians and asked 'So what shall we name her'.

It seemed to be a genuine request. He hadn't decided and wanted us to make the historic decision there and then. He had a few pointers.

Selam, the oldest child ever discoveredThe name had to be as good and universally easy to say as Lucy – the name of what, until yesterday, was Ethiopia's most famous early human remain. (They both date from the same era, making them Australopithecus afarensis.) It had to be the name of a girl. It had to be Ethiopian. And he wanted it to express a sense of peace – earlier he had talked about how he had had to employ armed guards on the dig because of ongoing hostilities in Afar.

That didn't really leave us much to play with. 'Selam' (Amharic for peace) said one of the journalists. The Culture Minister made a quick argument for using the Afar word for peace instead. But after few more impromptu speeches from the floor, it was agreed that 'Selam' would mean peace to most Ethiopians without causing any offence.

So that was that. She was Selam – Ethiopia's latest claim to being the cradle of the human race. It was only then that Dr Zeresenay admitted that Selam was also his wife's name and he was relieved everyone had made the right choice.

He also unveiled an artists' impression of what Selam might have looked like – a sculpture commissioned by National Geographic which will be on the cover of its next issue. He asked us not to take photos of it to respect the magazine's scoop. I'll just say that most of the journalists and hardened academics forgot themselves when he pulled back the cover and a huge 'Ahhh' went round the room.

I caught ETV talk show host Tefera Gedamu taking pictures of the members of the international press pack at the beginning of the press conference. "It's the first positive story they've covered for years," he said.

Noone mentioned the odd fact that Ethiopia's international paleontological fame is based on a theory that its main church denies – that is the theory of evolution. And it is not only the Orthodox Christians. An international broadcaster who happened to be a Muslim explained a few months back how he had to suspend his disbelief whenever he wrote a story about Lucy and her contemporaries. "This evolution stuff is nonsense. But I write it because that is what the news desk wants."

Posted by aheavens at 5:19 AM

September 14, 2006

Fair cop

I have been outed as a white non-African (see the comment near the bottom headlined 'Strike'). Photographic evidence of my whiteness has been posted.

This is all part of an incredibly tiresome "controversy" about the skin colours and ethnic backgrounds of people speaking at a blogging conference in Grahamstown, South Africa today and tomorrow. (Rush over at 3.30pm on Friday to hear me tell all about photo-blogging.)

If you believe me, I will be talking about the blogging scene in Africa to a mixed audience of like-minded people drawn from across the continent, from Egypt in the north to South Africa in the south (warning, some of the South Africans will also be white).

If you believe Sokari, I will be just another "big white chief" addressing an audience "full of eager black faces looking intently at the white chiefs for guidance".

She illustrates her rant with a cartoon of a pink-skinned pig. Nice.

UPDATE: The pig / hairless-pink-bulldog-with-trotters has gone.

Posted by aheavens at 1:05 PM

September 10, 2006

Ethiopian Survivor

MetiAll of today's newspapers are carrying adverts for 'Survivor Africa' which is - you've guessed it - the first African version of the hit "reality" TV show 'Survivor'. Twelve self-publicists go to a desert island somewhere and get voted off one by one until there is only one etc etc.

The new African version, produced by mnet, broadcast on DSTV, includes an Ethiopian competitor - 27-year-old Metasebiya Yilma - also known as Meti.

The Ethiopian adverts for the series picture Meti in front of the rest of the competitors with the slogan: "Can Ethiopia survive the toughest challenge?"

Unfortunately it looks like the answer is going to be "No it can't". Meti is already back in Ethiopia - she was interviewed in Friday's Sub-Saharan Informer, saying:

I came out a person with great values and much more respect for myself. Now nothing matters that much... Now I would not think that it is a big deal to be hungry. I have started valuing what I have.

Most of the series was filmed in advance. But, Harare's Financial Gazette reports, "filming of the final stages, where the last two contestants battle it out for the prize money, was yet to be done". So it looks like Meti didn't get the US$100,000 prize.

Posted by aheavens at 1:51 PM

Fortune's fortune

Someone is already having a very happy new year.

Fortune newspaper just came out with its bulked-up new year edition - a whopping 80 pages thick. And out of those 80 pages, a total of 61 are covered with very lucrative adverts. Ethiopian New Year may be a bad time of year to be a sheep. But it is a wonderful time of year to be a Fortune advertising executive.

There must be some articles in there somewhere. I'll report back when I find them.

An early Happy Ethiopian New Year to everyone by the way. Welcome to 1999.

Posted by aheavens at 1:35 PM

September 9, 2006

Amhara's flood

DSC0150Just got back from a trip to the flood-hit villages around Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile) in Ethiopia's central Amhara region.

Most of the coverage of the floods has focused on Dire Dawa and South Omo which were hit badly through August. But the rains are continuing to fall heavily around Lake Tana which is already badly swollen.

This is a part of Ethiopia which is relatively blessed the rest of the year with a ready supply of fish and lots of water for the fields. It is also stunningly beautiful and has the beginnings of a good tourism industry. Now whole villages are swamped in muddy torrents. People are either retreating to shelters on slightly higher ground or being taken to camps away from the lake edge, run by the government and supplied by the UN and NGOs.

The relief effort seems to be running relatively smoothly - although there was a shortage of blankets in villages around Gorgora on the northern bank of the lake.

The real worries will start when the drama of the flood fades. Farmers told us they needed seeds to replace their ruined crops. And long term, the pools of water that will remain after the flood retreats will make ideal breeding grounds for malaria-infected mosquitoes.

See more photos on Flickr.

Posted by aheavens at 6:53 AM

September 7, 2006

Two prisoners remembered

The latest Ethio Blog Global Voices roundup is up and ready to read.

Posted by aheavens at 4:00 PM

September 5, 2006

The poor will win

An old man came up to me as I was walking along the back road past the Prime Minister's palace this morning. "In Ethiopia," he said pointing at the sky, "the poor will win". "You tell them."

So this is me telling you. In Ethiopia, the poor will win.

Posted by aheavens at 7:20 AM

September 4, 2006

Ethiopia 1 - 0 Libya

The team stormed to victory on a green and mud-brown pitch. Fans took to the streets waving flags. Everyone else turned on their TV sets. The electricity pylon exploded. Everything went dark.

That was the view from Arada last night.

Posted by aheavens at 11:09 AM

September 3, 2006

Misused banknotes, clean-but-not-clean restrooms and toilet wars

Here are some highlights from today's ever-expanding Fortune newspaper.

The National Bank of Ethiopia can't burn old and "misused" bank notes fast enough. (How do you misuse a bank note?) Notebooks out bank robbers:

The vaults of the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) are facing a serious overcrowding with the arrival of newly printed Birr notes, supplied by the French company, Francois Charles Oberthur Fiduciaire (FCOF). The old and new headquarters of the central bank, located on Sudan Street, have full vaults, in the basements of the two buildings, because the old Birr notes have been sitting there since they were taken out of circulation. Adjacent to the two buildings, sharing a wall with Artistic Printers, the Bank has storage spaces which are also full.

The excellent but expensive Sangan Indian Restaurant only gets two stars for its 'sanitation' in the paper's weekly review:

Going to the restrooms at Sangam is both an interesting and unpleasant experience. Interesting for the number of sinks, and unpleasant for the general cleanliness. The toilet although not dirty as such, nevertheless gives off an odour of detergent and unaired restroom. Toilet paper is provided, as is liquid soap and one clean-looking towel. According to one of our reviewers, the restroom needed renovation and attention. He mentioned that although the restroom was not dirty per se, it still did not look clean.

An ongoing 'toilet war' between neighbouring developers on Bole Road is affecting business at United Bank:

Two prominent real-estate developers in Addis Abeba have found themselves locked in a vicious dispute over what an observer described as "the toilet war". The right to use sewage lines for two adjacent buildings on Africa Avenue (Bole Road) has caused yet another round of sharp controversy between businessmen Salahadin and Abdulhamid Abubaker, owners of Garad Plc and Getu Gelete, owner of Get As International Plc...None of the tenants of [Getu's] building have access to toilet facilities or running water in their bathrooms. "Our staffs have to walk a distance just to be able to use the toilet," said one of the 30 employees assigned in the United Bank's branch there...One of the senior managers attributed the slump in productivity to this fact.

Columnist Lulit Amdemariam has some great news from the rental sector:

The boom in the construction sector, particularly seen in housing development, has led to somewhat of a decline in the cost of rentals.

So she decided to go on a house-hunting tour outside the city centre:

There were French windows on one side that led to a balcony, which had a glass and aluminium shade, covered in the same dark brown that was on all the windows in the house. To put it mildly, it looked like the inside of a 90s Land Cruiser that was driven in from Djibouti.

Yours for 7,500 Birr a month.

Posted by aheavens at 9:54 AM

I take it back

The rainy season is not the best time to be in Ethiopia. In Addis it is miserable, miserable, miserable.

Posted by aheavens at 9:51 AM

Anyone for rugby?

Addis Ababa's newest (only?) rugby club kicked off yesterday. Eight Ethiopians, Brits and Italians ran up and down Jan Meda trying to teach themselves the basics of the game (apparently you pass backwards).

We managed to get in about 40 minutes before being thrown out by the park keeper who told us that Jan Meda was closed until October.

We weren't too sad to go. The knee-high grass, scattered animal skulls and sudden surprise-swamps that opened out under your feet were getting a bit tiresome. Another risk associated with training in these conditions is getting worms from all the mud that spatters around after every trip and failed catch.

The next challenge is to find a name, a better ground and a sponsorship deal with the makers of albendazole.

If any of this sounds attractive to anyone out there, send in an email and I will pass on your details to the organisers.

Posted by aheavens at 7:20 AM

Sim cards and cell phones

Something is going right, slowly, at Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation.

Two years ago, I needed a letter from the Ministry of Information to help me jump to the front of the rumoured two-year waiting list for a sim card. (Journalists got priority.)

The first time I lost my phone, I had to spend hours searching for the original toilet-paper-thin registration documents before presenting them to the right window at the right office at the right time of day before getting a replacement sim card. For some reason, I also felt I had to apologise to every official I met along the way for my forgetfulness.

The second time I lost my phone - last week, I just showed up at the tele office near the train station, told them my number, showed my ID, paid 25 birr and got a new card on the spot.

When I went to buy my third minimalist Ethiopian handset, the assistant told me she could have also sold me a sim card as well.

All that and broadband around the corner as well. Exciting days.

Posted by aheavens at 7:06 AM