Monday, May 20, 2024

Unwarranted internet blocking unacceptable!

With the exception of a handful of entities not dependent on the state-owned telecom monopoly ethio telecom for the provision of internet service, users were denied access to the service early this week immediately after assurances were provided that the new higher education entrance examination that students are currently sitting for have not been leaked like the initial examination due to be given early June. Naturally the responsibility of ensuring the integrity of the exam does not lie on the government alone; it is borne by each and every citizen. Taking the country offline right after the government reassured students and parents that the exam has not been leaked has led to confusion and alarm in equal measure. The move not only defeated its attempt to put the public at ease, but may well have dented Ethiopia’s international standing as well. It also subjected local users ranging from individuals to private, governmental and non-governmental organizations to inconvenience. This is unacceptable by any standard.

Even if there are legitimate concerns that the exam may be leaked again, the government should have eyed other options that the latest technology avails to it. At a time when the world has become a globalized village thanks to the advent of the internet, the abrupt blocking of the service without any warning whatsoever has had an adverse political, economic and social ramification for the nation and its people. It should be all too clear that given the service is gradually becoming critically important across all sectors and aspects of life, shutting it down is much more consequential than disrupting other less matters.

As part of its strategy to effect a structural change in the economy, the government is courting Foreign Direct Investment. Towards this end it has undertaken the construction of a slew of industrial parks in various regions. It’s when the stringent demands of foreign investors are met that Ethiopia can become a preferred investment destination from neighboring and other African nations. If Ethiopia is to emerge competitive with and surpass Kenya, which has been dubbed the Silicon Valley of Africa due to its vibrant information technology industry, it has to excel in the delivery of different types of services including internet service. The harmful effects of taking decisions hastily without thinking through their consequences tend to undermine the principle of accountability. The government should have cleaned its house so that the fresh set of higher education entrance examination is not leaked instead of taking a drastic action which made life difficult for everyone.

Who will be held answerable if banks, which contribute to the growth of the company by employing hundreds of thousands of jobs, were to sustain a loss due to the suspension of their electronic payment service? How will companies and individuals who rely on the service to conduct commercial transactions be compensated for the loss they are forced to bear? What can be done to redress the social cost to citizens, potentially fatal in some instances, that severing internet connection entails? Why did the officials ultimately responsible for the extreme measure fail to anticipate its disastrous fallout? Somebody has to come up with a prompt clarification.
The crucial role information technology plays in the advancement of a nation is a fact that everyone should appreciate, more so government officials. However, it was recently revealed at a parliamentary hearing that a shockingly high proportion of office holders have a limited understanding of the importance of information technology and actually consider its enhancement to be a luxury the country cannot afford. It is quite disappointing to see a technology which deserves the utmost attention given it is instrumental in accelerating the nation’s growth used as a means to avert the leaking of national exams. The prevalence of such a reactionary attitude, which is unconcerned with the detrimental impact of disconnecting users from the internet, does not bode well for the country in that it not only tarnishes the country’s image, but also tramples on the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression and other legitimate interests of citizens. It also lends credence to the oft-levelled accusation that the government routinely violates democratic and human rights. This is exactly what is taking place.
As we always say the absence of transparency and accountability of in the conduct of the government is bound to lead to acts which run counter to the public interest. The surest way to prevent not only the stealing of exam papers, but also other forms of rent-seeking that threaten the very survival of the political establishment is the resolute application of the principles of transparency and accountability. Failure to do so has put the credibility of the establishment on the line. The government’s inability to see to it that its house is clean resulted in the leaking of exam papers that cost the country dear. So what prompted the government to block access to the internet and leave many inconvenienced on the heels of the announcement that the backup examination would not be tampered with? Why were other options not explored alongside the preparation of the substitute examination?

Any complex undertaking like administering national examinations is always fraught with problems. The important thing is to draw the appropriate lessons therefrom and institute long-term solutions. The government’s track record in this regard is checkered where its attempt to rectify its mistake with another mistake gave rise dreadful outcomes. The leaking of the initial examination on social media should have elicited the search for a durable solution, not a knee-jerk reaction which led to more problems than solve them. In this age of ultra-fast communication contemplating that the leaking of examinations can be averted by blocking the internet is a demonstration of the lack of creative thinking. The government ought to have stayed the course with its assurance to students and parents, not sow even more confusion by an ill-considered step. Cutting off the country from the rest of the world by blocking access to the internet is unwarranted and totally unacceptable!

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