Rumor and Unrest in a Fragile Federation
By James Jeffrey
On October 2, police and protesters clashed during a traditional Oromo festival held beside a lake in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, just over 20 miles southeast of Addis Ababa. The stampede that ensued left about 100 drowned or crushed to death. Social media soon pulsed with claims that a government helicopter circling overhead had fired into panicking crowds. A helicopter had indeed been there, but it was dropping leaflets wishing all a “Happy Irreecha”—the name of the festival. Still, social media, and the informal news cycle into which it feeds, whirled on.
The Irreecha incident is but one of many in a year of turmoil in Ethiopia. Protests that began last November, when Oromo farmers objected to government land grabs to expand the capital and clear space for potential foreign investors, have mushroomed into a movement against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, which is estimated to number between 250,000 and one million, has been particularly vocal online. Following the Irreecha incident, U.S. overseas activists called for “five days of rage.” Although it is not clear what effect this call may have had, a few days later in Ethiopia, bands of mostly young men attacked foreign-owned factories, government buildings, and tourist lodges across the Oromo region.
In response to the upheaval, on October 9, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency, restricting the use of mobile data, increasing Internet blackouts, and blocking social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. At an October 26 press conference Ethiopian government spokesperson Getachew Reda said, “Mobile data will be permitted once the government assesses that it won’t threaten the implementation of the state of emergency."
Human Rights Watch has condemned the state of emergency for “draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that go far beyond what is permissible under international law.” Although there is no explicit ban on print media, the government has issued broad statements condemning writing or sharing material that “could