Felicia Anthonio: The Internet shut­down is not about you. It’s not tar­get­ed at you. The Internet shut­down is real­ly about the pro­test­ers. Amid the cloud of tear gas in the streets, retreat­ing from a vol­ley of sting­ing rub­ber bul­lets, are the real tar­gets of the shut­down. Now that their mobile phones aren’t con­nect­ed, they can’t regroup, orga­nize, and reassess their rights. And they can’t doc­u­ment or report on how the secu­ri­ty forces are switch­ing from rub­ber bul­lets to live ammu­ni­tion. They can’t tell the world that they are about to be slaugh­tered. And they can’t ask for help. The gov­ern­ment knows that the Internet shut­down will help them get away with the bru­tal­i­ty and human rights vio­la­tions tak­ing place in this infor­ma­tion black­out. Or at least they are hop­ing it will.

Welcome to Kill Switch, a pod­cast series brought to you by Access Now, the KeepItOn coali­tion, co-sponsored by Internews, and pro­duced by Volume. I am your host Felicia Anthonio. 

In this six-part series, we want to high­light the trou­bling rise of a new form of anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic oppres­sion spread­ing across the world: government-created Internet shut­downs. We will be hear­ing from jour­nal­ists, activists, and experts who have been fight­ing to keep the Internet on, all the way from the high court of Sudan to the rur­al regions of Pakistan. 

We want to start this episode by acknowl­edg­ing the Internet shut­down that start­ed in Belarus a week before record­ing this. The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of Belarus was sched­uled to take place on the 9th of August 2020. When incum­bent pres­i­dent Alexander Lukashenko won for a fifth term, hav­ing held pow­er since 1994, pro­test­ers took to the streets of Minsk. 

Security forces began using tear gas and stun grenades on pro­test­ers. And lead­ing up to the elec­tion, count­less jour­nal­ists, crit­ics, blog­gers, and oppo­si­tion lead­ers were arrest­ed. We can only assume that the gov­ern­ment antic­i­pat­ed this kind of reac­tion to the elec­tion. Because as polling sta­tions closed that Sunday, the coun­try start­ed expe­ri­enc­ing tar­get­ed Internet disruptions. 

In response to the shut­down, more than fifty human rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Access Now, signed an open let­ter con­demn­ing the gov­ern­men­t’s actions. The let­ter cit­ed a num­ber of inter­na­tion­al arti­cles and res­o­lu­tions from the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations, and oth­ers in sup­port of its cen­tral argu­ment. As the let­ter’s open­ing lines read, such dis­rup­tions are imper­mis­si­ble under inter­na­tion­al human rights law.

This is the argu­ment that we are mak­ing in this episode of Kill Switch as well. We talked to a jour­nal­ist, an activist, and a human rights researcher about the var­i­ous ways in which Internet shut­downs and human rights vio­la­tions intersect. 

The shut­down in Belarus fol­lows right on the heels of the recent shut­down in Ethiopia that start­ed in June 2020 as we were record­ing episode 1 of this pod­cast series. The Ethiopian gov­ern­men­t’s long his­to­ry of Internet shut­downs and human rights vio­la­tions can per­haps give us a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how these issues inter­re­late. We talked to Fisseha Tekle, an Amnesty International researcher in Ethiopia. Amnesty International is involved in legal reforms in an attempt to bring some of the coun­try’s his­tor­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic laws in line with inter­na­tion­al human rights standards.

Fisseha Tekle: The human rights sit­u­a­tion in Ethiopia has seen some improve­ments since 2018. And we can char­ac­ter­ize those improve­ments as remark­able since we saw the release of thou­sands of oppo­si­tion lead­ers and mem­bers, as well as jour­nal­ists and blog­gers. The gov­ern­ment was also revis­ing laws that were instru­men­tal in silenc­ing dis­sent and opposition. 

Anthonio: Despite these reforms, there are still instances of report­ed inter­com­mu­nal vio­lence and human rights vio­la­tions in the coun­try. In 2019 for exam­ple, secu­ri­ty forces com­mit­ted hor­ren­dous acts of bru­tal­i­ty and intim­i­da­tion in Amhara and Oromia, result­ing in killings, destruc­tion of prop­er­ty, and civil­ian dis­place­ments, accord­ing to Amnesty International.

Tekle: Amnesty International has doc­u­ment­ed the law enforce­ment mea­sures by the gov­ern­ment secu­ri­ty forces. Their inter­com­mu­nal vio­lence and armed incur­sions have result­ed in a num­ber of extra­ju­di­cial exe­cu­tions and arbi­trary mass arrests, tor­ture, and ill treat­ment, amongst others.

Anthonio: Fisseha says that a big prob­lem regard­ing human rights vio­la­tions in Ethiopia is the lack of prop­er doc­u­men­ta­tion and reporting.

Tekle: Moreover, the prob­lem of per­va­sive impuni­ty for grave human rights vio­la­tions has con­tin­ued, as many past and recent human rights vio­la­tions remain unac­count­ed for through inde­pen­dent and cred­i­ble inves­ti­ga­tion. Instead, the gov­ern­ment has resort­ed to their old habit of clamp­ing down oppo­si­tion, using the pre­text of law enforce­ment in the face of mount­ing vio­lence and secu­ri­ty deterioration.

Anthonio: Along with this track record of human rights vio­la­tions and lack of account­abil­i­ty, the gov­ern­ment of Ethiopia has become over­ly reliant on hit­ting the kill switch. These Internet shut­downs lim­it the abil­i­ty of human rights work­ers to respond to, doc­u­ment, and report human rights violations. 

Tekle: The Internet shut­downs that usu­al­ly hap­pen hand-in-hand with weak mobile con­nec­tiv­i­ty affect the [indis­tinct] of human rights defend­ers who have a crit­i­cal role in doc­u­ment­ing human rights vio­la­tions in the con­text of unrest. For instance, the full mag­ni­tude of vio­lence that hap­pened in the wake of the killing of artist Hachalu Hundessa on the 29th of July this year is yet to come out due to the extent of the county-wide Internet shutdown. 

Anthonio: Human rights work­ers have come to rely heav­i­ly on Internet con­nec­tion to do their work effectively. 

Tekle: It enables or facil­i­tates the com­pil­ing of human rights vio­la­tions as they hap­pen. And get­ting that infor­ma­tion in real-time is crit­i­cal for the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the evidence.

Anthonio: Most human rights research and report­ing relies on tes­ti­monies from actu­al vic­tims or wit­ness­es of human rights vio­la­tions. Because of this, get­ting infor­ma­tion out quick­ly is crucial.

Tekle: The verac­i­ty of the tes­ti­mo­ny relies on the time gap between the event of the vio­la­tion and the time of pro­vid­ing the tes­ti­mo­ny. Equally, the Internet is instru­men­tal to access addi­tion­al audio­vi­su­al evi­dence before they are tam­pered or doc­tored to feed the nar­ra­tives of dif­fer­ent inter­est groups.

Anthonio: And last­ly, time­ly report­ing also con­tributes to stop­ping abu­sive acts as they happen.

Tekle: Real-time human rights research is crit­i­cal in mit­i­gat­ing the impact of vio­la­tions by enabling inter­ven­tions to stop the vio­la­tions and also to pro­vide time­ly human rights support.

Anthonio: There is also anoth­er delib­er­ate rea­son why these Internet shut­downs are orches­trat­ed. In cer­tain con­texts, the gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits from the inabil­i­ty of human rights work­ers to doc­u­ment gov­ern­ment actions.

Tekle: Prior to 2018, the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment used to shut down the Internet or lim­it access to the Internet for the pur­pose of cov­er­ing up human rights vio­la­tions. The stat­ed pur­pose of the lat­est Internet shut­down in Ethiopia has been that it is for nation­al secu­ri­ty. We can­not be cer­tain that the rea­son for the Internet shut­down was cov­er up human rights vio­la­tions. Yet, we are cer­tain that arbi­trary Internet shut­downs delay access to infor­ma­tion relat­ed to human rights violations.

Anthonio: But despite all of this, Fisseha reminds us that Internet access itself is also a human right in many ways.

Tekle: As arbi­trary as they are, the shut­downs con­sti­tute human rights vio­la­tions by them­selves, affect­ing peo­ple’s right to free­dom of expres­sion and access to infor­ma­tion. This is with­out men­tion­ing the lost liveli­hoods and oppor­tu­ni­ties due to the Internet shutdown.

Anthonio: Amnesty International does a lot of work relat­ed to human rights in a dig­i­tal con­text, putting the same rig­or and research behind this issue as any other.

Tekle: At Amnesty International, we place a high impor­tance on dig­i­tal rights, includ­ing access to Internet. Hence we have a team ded­i­cat­ed to mon­i­tor­ing and research­ing the state of access to Internet. Country researchers also work with dig­i­tal rights teams to research, advo­cate, and cam­paign on this spe­cif­ic issue.

Anthonio: Their work includes col­lab­o­rat­ing with tech com­pa­nies to pro­mote Internet access and dig­i­tal rights.

Tekle: For instance in 2016 Amnesty International pub­lished a joint report with OONI.

Anthonio: We talked to Maria Xynou from OONI in the pre­vi­ous episode of Kill Switch and heard all about how they col­lect and doc­u­ment net­work dis­rup­tion data.

Tekle: And the title of that report was Ethiopia Offline: Evidence of Social Media Blocking.

Anthonio: In that report, they inves­ti­gat­ed and report­ed on how the gov­ern­ment has been delib­er­ate­ly cur­tail­ing access to social media sites and WhatsApp. Luckily, there are peo­ple like Fisseha embed­ded in Ethiopia and oth­er coun­tries. They make sure that despite shut­downs, the truth comes out in the end.

Tekle: The intent or pur­pose of the shut­down is to frus­trate evidence-collection efforts of human rights orga­ni­za­tions, or to block that part of the prob­lem. But usu­al­ly, the shut­downs have nev­er solved that prob­lem. The infor­ma­tion will come out, one way or the other. 

Anthonio: Yvonne Ng is an audio­vi­su­al archivist with the inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion Witness. Her work is specif­i­cal­ly cen­tered on the doc­u­men­ta­tion of human rights vio­la­tions using mobile phones.

Yvonne Ng: Documenting human rights vio­la­tions is always impor­tant for cap­tur­ing evi­dence of abus­es so that they can be used in advo­ca­cy efforts, in inves­ti­ga­tions, in pros­e­cu­tions. And for ampli­fy­ing the sto­ries and expe­ri­ences of peo­ple that may counter the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives or mis­truths. In the con­text of an Internet shut­down, doc­u­men­ta­tion becomes even more impor­tant, since shut­downs often occur in the con­text of height­ened repres­sion and vio­lence, of oth­er human rights abus­es, and dur­ing peri­ods of polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty such as protests or elec­tions. So doc­u­men­ta­tion of what is real­ly hap­pen­ing on the ground is very impor­tant. Even if that doc­u­men­ta­tion can’t be shared in real-time in the moment, it can be a way to pre­serve that infor­ma­tion and those voic­es that author­i­ties are active­ly try­ing to silence so that they can be used lat­er on.

Anthonio: Witness’ main focus is on video media. They train and sup­port civil­ians and activists on how to col­lect, man­age, and pre­serve mobile video doc­u­men­ta­tion of human rights issues around the world.

Ng: Well, video is the focus of the work that we do because we feel like it is a very acces­si­ble tool for activists and ordi­nary peo­ple to use to doc­u­ment human rights abus­es. You know, video is avail­able to every­body on their phones that they car­ry with them at all hours of the day so it’s like, ready at hand and you can pull it out and you can doc­u­ment what’s going on around you with­out any spe­cial addi­tion­al tools or training.

Anthonio: The audio­vi­su­al nature of video reach­es peo­ple in ways that writ­ten state­ments sim­ply can­not. It makes an imme­di­ate, vis­cer­al connection.

Ng: I think an exam­ple of video evi­dence that peo­ple in the United States and glob­al­ly are very aware of is all of the videos show­ing police vio­lence, par­tic­u­lar­ly most recent­ly and vis­i­bly with George Floyd. We’ve seen how those videos have exposed sys­temic abuse by the police against black com­mu­ni­ties and made that issue so vis­i­ble and so believ­able to many peo­ple who had maybe nev­er known that it was an issue or had nev­er wit­nessed this kind of abuse them­selves. And we see how those videos have real­ly shaped glob­al under­stand­ing of the issue of police violence.

Anthonio: Now, imag­ine the US gov­ern­ment decid­ed to block social media access dur­ing the recent protests. How much of the vio­lence fol­low­ing the killing of George Floyd would have gone unseen, unre­port­ed, and for­got­ten. Or, think of the footage that has come out of the protests in Hong Kong. Around the world, gov­ern­ments have real­ized that the Internet and social media shut­downs can help them con­tain the spread of such pow­er­ful imagery. Remember in episode 1 of Kill Switch, we men­tioned how slow­ing down the Internet to 2G con­nec­tion is delib­er­ate­ly done to stop peo­ple from being able to upload mul­ti­me­dia con­tent such as videos.

Ng: We’ve seen in recent years how doc­u­men­ta­tion record­ed by ordi­nary peo­ple, by cit­i­zens who are wit­ness­ing abus­es going on around them, has you know, just explod­ed. And the way that this infor­ma­tion often get­ting out is via social media or closed chat apps such as WhatsApp. So this is where a lot of this doc­u­men­ta­tion is being shared, and where it’s being accessed by advo­cates, by inves­ti­ga­tors. So, in the case of an Internet shut­down, those ser­vices are not avail­able, so the infor­ma­tion can’t get out.

Anthonio: On the Witness web site, at blog​.wit​ness​.org, you can find their guide­lines for doc­u­ment­ing human rights vio­la­tions with video dur­ing Internet shutdowns.

Ng: So, our guid­ance was devel­oped from the chal­lenges and the advice that we were hear­ing from activists who were work­ing in a shut­down con­text. And also from our back­ground and exper­tise in video documentation.

Anthonio: You might think it is as easy as point­ing your cam­era and hit­ting record, or mak­ing sure you are in land­scape mode. But dur­ing a human rights cri­sis, record­ing videos becomes risky, and pre­serv­ing them becomes difficult.

Ng: So there are steps you can take to help you con­tin­ue to doc­u­ment, with video, in spite of the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges posed by Internet shut­downs. Which include, as I men­tioned, height­ened secu­ri­ty risks, the inabil­i­ty to rely on cer­tain secure forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as end-to-end encrypt­ed chat, for instance. You know of course there’s tech­no­log­i­cal imped­i­ments when there’s an Internet shut­down that pre­vent you from send­ing videos to oth­er peo­ple, or using cloud back­up, or send­ing it off-site for safe keeping.

Anthonio: When you are doc­u­ment­ing human rights vio­la­tions, there are also things that you can do to make sure that your video helps human rights workers.

Ng: We have guid­ance on how peo­ple can film and han­dle their video so that it’s more eas­i­ly ver­i­fi­able lat­er on by oth­ers. We also have guid­ance on how you can main­tain and back up your video doc­u­men­ta­tion, even if you don’t have Internet, and even if you don’t have a com­put­er. And final­ly, we have guid­ance on how you can still share files and how you might still be able to com­mu­ni­cate in per­haps more lim­it­ed ways even dur­ing an Internet shutdown.

Anthonio: You want to make sure your video is easy to authen­ti­cate and dif­fi­cult to be dis­missed by gov­ern­ment offi­cials. The rise of syn­thet­ic media, such as deep­fakes for exam­ple, has cre­at­ed a new obsta­cle for authen­tic doc­u­men­ta­tion and pro­vides a poten­tial get out of jail free card to those mak­ing claims of fake news.

Ng: Metadata essen­tial­ly means data about data. So, in the case of video doc­u­men­ta­tion it’s infor­ma­tion that describes your video, such as the time and date that you record­ed it, or the loca­tion that you were in when you record­ed it. And meta­da­ta is impor­tant for authen­ti­cat­ing and ver­i­fy­ing your video. In oth­er words demon­strat­ing that your video is gen­uine and has­n’t been manip­u­lat­ed and actu­al­ly reflects the inci­dent that it claims to be a record­ing of.

Anthonio: Metadata is essen­tial to record­ing human rights vio­la­tions in more than one way.

Ng: I mean, meta­da­ta is essen­tial for your video file to even func­tion, first of all. But you know, meta­da­ta is key for peo­ple to even iden­ti­fy and under­stand what’s going on in the video. Like if you had a video that had no time, date, or loca­tion infor­ma­tion attached to it, you would­n’t even know what it’s showing. 

Anthonio: Video record­ing apps usu­al­ly gen­er­ate meta­da­ta for the file itself. But often­times, there are addi­tion­al mea­sures that you can take to sup­port the authen­tic­i­ty of your video’s metadata.

Ng: Metadata in some cas­es is auto­mat­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed by your phone and embed­ded into the video file, or gen­er­at­ed by an app and embed­ded in your video file. It can also be record­ed sep­a­rate­ly. And it can be man­u­al­ly cre­at­ed by you. Like it could be a hand-written note that you write. It could be a sep­a­rate voice note that you record that includes a descrip­tion, or peo­ple’s names, or any oth­er infor­ma­tion that describes what’s going on in your video.

Anthonio: A shut­down also means that no one can livestream events or get videos pub­lished online at the time of a cri­sis. So keep­ing your video safe and pro­tect­ed becomes crucial.

Ng: So that could mean get­ting your­self a wifi thumb­drive that can con­nect direct­ly to your phone with­out a com­put­er. Or an OTG dri­ve, which stands for on the go” dri­ve, which plugs direct­ly into your Android phone and also does not require a com­put­er. And then you can offload your videos onto that dri­ve so that you have a back­up copy. 

Anthonio: Part of Witness’ guide is to help peo­ple keep record­ings safe until that time in which they can release the videos.

Ng: We’ve heard of exam­ples of devices being con­fis­cat­ed. We’ve also heard about devices just being checked. And peo­ple you know, putting them­selves at per­son­al risk for hav­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion on their phones. So, we also have advice on how peo­ple can make their phones more secure so that if your phone is con­fis­cat­ed, your doc­u­men­ta­tion is per­haps more well-hidden or hard­er to access.

Anthonio: What all of these tech­ni­cal, prac­ti­cal, and safe­ty rec­om­men­da­tions come down to is real­ly hav­ing video doc­u­men­ta­tion that can make a difference.

Ng: At Witness, we always say that you know, more video does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean more rights. 

Anthonio: You can have as much doc­u­men­ta­tion in the world as pos­si­ble, but for it to make a dif­fer­ence it needs to be usable. And in the end, used by human rights advo­cates, lawyers, and organizations.

Ng: In the case of doc­u­ment­ing dur­ing Internet shut­downs, even though peo­ple can’t share in the moment, ulti­mate­ly there has to be a place for this doc­u­men­ta­tion to go. For some­body to use this doc­u­men­ta­tion. So you know, I think there is a real­ly impor­tant role for orga­ni­za­tions like Witness, or orga­ni­za­tions that do local advo­ca­cy or advo­ca­cy inter­na­tion­al­ly, to seek out this doc­u­men­ta­tion and to pro­vide ways for doc­u­menters to secure­ly get that infor­ma­tion out to them.

Anthonio: For our last sto­ry, we return to Ethiopia to see what it is like on the ground for every­day reporters. They are, after all, often the ones to first inves­ti­gate, doc­u­ment, and share human rights vio­la­tions when they occur. Tom Gardner has been liv­ing and work­ing in Ethiopia for a long time. He is the Ethiopian cor­re­spon­dent for The Economist mag­a­zine. Even with his ear always to the ground, the most recent shut­down in Ethiopia took him by surprise.

Tom Gardner: I mean, I did­n’t see it com­ing. I think I’m cer­tain­ly used to Internet shut­downs now in Ethiopia. I’ve been here four years and I’ve had many—prob­a­bly you know, approach­ing ten if you include non-comprehensive nation­wide ones but just region­al ones. 

Anthonio: As we already heard from Yvonne and Fisseha, Internet shut­downs nev­er hap­pen in a vacuum.

Gardner: I did­n’t see this polit­i­cal cri­sis com­ing, which is what trig­gered the shut­down. It was the mur­der of a pop­u­lar Ethiopian pop singer called Hachalu Hundessa. This was on the night of 29th of June. I woke up the next morning—I’d gone to bed before hear­ing about any of this. But by the time I woke up in the morn­ing I was get­ting WhatsApp mes­sages, mes­sages on social media what was hap­pen­ing, which was there were protests around Addis Ababa, there was big crowds of peo­ple from out­side of Addis Ababa, march­ing into the city as part of a protest which quite quick­ly turned vio­lent. So there was a whole lot going on. The Internet was shut down at about 9 AM on the 30th of June. So I’d been awake for about a cou­ple of hours before every­thing stopped, in terms of our communications.

Anthonio: But as he has already men­tioned, Tom is used to these shut­downs. He has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Gardner: I was able to get a lit­tle bits of con­nec­tion sit­ting in my car out­side the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa com­pound in Addis. I sat out­side that for a few min­utes before being moved along by secu­ri­ty. I was able to get on their Internet where they had a satel­lite con­nec­tion. For a cou­ple of days I was able to do that. So that made it a bit eas­i­er in terms of just fil­ing my stories. 

Anthonio: Despite being able to tem­porar­i­ly gets on the UN’s wifi, dur­ing an Internet shut­down jour­nal­ists usu­al­ly have to employ oth­er old-school tech­niques to con­tin­ue reporting.

Gardner: You kind of return to the jour­nal­ism, or the report­ing tech­niques of you know, anoth­er era. You have to phone in, read out, dic­tate the arti­cle over the phone, just to get the basic numbers—number of dead for exam­ple in the recent protests. Often these things just come out online on the newswires: BBC, Reuters, or what­ev­er. It’s pret­ty slow, it’s pret­ty frustrating.

Anthonio: In the past, when the kill switch had not yet become such a technically-sophisticated tool, jour­nal­ists like Tom could report with what amount­ed to a slight inconvenience.

Gardner: I arrived in Ethiopia in October 2016 and the morn­ing I arrived was the start of a shut­down. Because there was anoth­er polit­i­cal cri­sis on the very day I arrived. So I arrived and there’s no mobile Internet at all. They did have wifi, landline—there was still Internet in hotels. So it was frus­trat­ing, it was dif­fi­cult, but I could still do my work. As the years have gone on, I feel they have become much more comprehensive. 

Anthonio: But now, things are more dif­fi­cult. And get­ting sto­ries out in a fast-paced media envi­ron­ment while a shut­down is hap­pen­ing becomes essential.

Gardner: You know, work­ing with peo­ple who write for the wires, for Reuters, AFP, and AP, it’s real­ly impor­tant first of all for com­bat­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion and fake news. Because if the report­ing is essen­tial­ly being done by peo­ple over­seas who are not in the coun­try, who are going off very vague snip­pets of infor­ma­tion they might have seen online or from a cou­ple of calls they’ve man­aged to make to the coun­try, a lot of you know, mis­in­for­ma­tion cir­cu­lates very quick­ly, and that hap­pened this time around.

Anthonio: Ironically, the recent shut­down in Ethiopia was itself jus­ti­fied by the gov­ern­ment as an attempt to pre­vent fake news from spreading.

Gardner: Yeah, I remem­ber speak­ing to a col­league at one of the wire agen­cies who got calls from his edi­tors in Nairobi say­ing, This per­son has tweet­ed that this is hap­pen­ing in Addis Ababa and everyone—you know, all the news agen­cies report­ing it.” It was­n’t cor­rect. I mean it was essen­tial­ly mis­in­for­ma­tion about what was what was going on in Addis Ababa. So I think it’s real­ly impor­tant to be able to have jour­nal­ists on the ground to be able to cor­rect mis­in­for­ma­tion and also to be online and mak­ing sure that the facts are get­ting out there as quick­ly as possible.

Anthonio: For inter­na­tion­al reporters in par­tic­u­lar, social media is becom­ing a cru­cial tool for con­nect­ing with local news agen­cies and reporters.

Gardner: I find par­tic­u­lar­ly being alert­ed to reports in local media and local lan­guage media…if I’m not online or on social media specif­i­cal­ly I’m unlike­ly to come across them. That’s a pret­ty impor­tant source of infor­ma­tion. And you know, a lot of the most impor­tant local report­ing is being done by these ser­vices and local lan­guage ser­vices, and I need to be able to just see what they’re saying.

Anthonio: But social media does­n’t just help reporters get access to local news. It is also about find­ing the sto­ries hap­pen­ing in the far-flung cor­ners of a country.

Gardner: It’s also just an enor­mous coun­try with very lim­it­ed press cov­er­age of what is hap­pen­ing in dis­tant, kind of periph­er­al areas, which also hap­pened to be areas where you are most like­ly to see human rights abus­es, killings by secu­ri­ty forces, or arrests or beat­ings or what­ev­er. There are sim­ply not enough jour­nal­ists, local or oth­er­wise, who are in these areas and able to report on them. So social media and cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism is real­ly important. 

Anthonio: These are often the videos that Yvonne talked about. Well-documented human rights vio­la­tions can be used as evi­dence by jour­nal­ists to build fac­tu­al and impact­ful stories.

Gardner: Earlier this year a regionally-specific shut­down in west­ern Ethiopia and west­ern Oromia…that was clear­ly to dis­rupt rebel activ­i­ty and also to pre­vent videos, pho­tos, of the human rights abus­es which were going on, and are going on in that part of the coun­try from reach­ing the out­side world. And that was clear. 

Anthonio: There is anoth­er issue we haven’t men­tioned yet. And that is jour­nal­ists and human rights work­ers are also placed in dan­ger because of the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion avail­able to them.

Gardner: These shutdowns…not always, but almost always, occur in the con­text of seri­ous polit­i­cal unrest. Not just for me but for many peo­ple, Ethiopians with fam­i­ly and friends abroad, myself with fam­i­ly and friends abroad, it is very wor­ry­ing. They can’t check in on you, it’s hard to— You know, they don’t know what’s going on. They aren’t able to get in touch eas­i­ly to check that you’re safe. That is obvi­ous­ly a prob­lem. I went to west­ern Ethiopia ear­li­er this year, where there was a three-month region­al black­out, essen­tial­ly. And that was wor­ry­ing not just for peo­ple back home but for even friends in Addis who were not—you know, who can’t check in on you so eas­i­ly, check in on me so eas­i­ly. In that par­tic­u­lar instance there was also no text or phone calls in this town, so peo­ple even in Addis were not able to con­tact me.

Anthonio: Talking to Tom, it is clear that despite all the shut­downs that he has expe­ri­enced, it is still some­thing that makes him uneasy.

Gardner: You feel very dis­con­nect­ed from the world. It’s kind of a—it’s a strange sen­sa­tion to know that the rest of the world is online and you’re in this kind of black hole. You know, these are the moments… The Internet shut­downs come at a time where, clear­ly, by def­i­n­i­tion there is news going on. You’re at your busiest. And yeah, it makes things a lot trickier. 

Anthonio: Internet access can itself be regard­ed as an enabler of human rights, con­nect­ed to free­dom of expres­sion and free­dom of infor­ma­tion. As we have heard through­out this series, it is also inte­gral­ly con­nect­ed to oth­er human rights, includ­ing access to health­care, edu­ca­tion, as well as the right to live, and free­dom from unfair detainment. 

In the last episode of Kill Switch, which will be released next week, we take a look at the future of the fight against Internet shutdowns. 

For more infor­ma­tion about how to sup­port the KeepItOn coali­tion and our work, vis­it our web site, www​.access​now​.org. This pod­cast was pro­duced by Access Now and Volume, with fund­ing sup­port from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. Subscribe wher­ev­er you get your pod­casts, and share as wide­ly as pos­si­ble to help the fight against Internet shut­downs. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been lis­ten­ing to Kill Switch. Goodbye and remem­ber to Keep It On.

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