Social media restricted in Ethiopia as church rift turns violent

Three church officials declared themselves archbishops last month, leading to protests that have killed at least 30 people.

Ethiopian Orthodox faithful attend Epiphany celebration to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ
Ethiopian Orthodox faithful commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ at Epiphany celebrations on Lake Dambal in Batu town of the Oromia region on January 19, 2023 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Access to social media platforms has been restricted in Ethiopia, the Internet watchdog NetBlocks says, after violent protests sparked by a rift within the country’s Orthodox Church.

The protests broke out in the Oromia region when three church officials declared themselves archbishops last month and set up their own governing body. Some demonstrators have opposed their move while others have supported it.

Access to Facebook, Messenger, TikTok and Telegram has been severely restricted, NetBlocks said on Twitter late on Thursday, citing network data it had collected.

The tweet came hours after the church said at least 30 people have been killed in the protests since February 4.

The church’s statement called for demonstrations on Sunday against the new governing body as it accused the Ethiopian government of “meddling” in the church’s internal affairs after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed asked his ministers to stay out of the dispute.

The Ethiopian state has traditionally maintained close ties to the Orthodox Church, to which more than 40 percent of the population belongs.

Government spokesperson Legesse Tulu did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday. The government said in a statement on Thursday that the upcoming protest was banned to prevent violence.

Ethiopian authorities have previously shut down or restricted access to the internet during periods of political unrest, including in response to protests in 2020 that followed the killing of a popular singer from Oromia.

Internet and phone communications were also shut down in the northern region of Tigray for most of a two-year war that ended in a ceasefire in November.

The Orthodox Church insisted Sunday’s protest would go ahead and said the government’s ban constituted “a declaration to destroy the church once and for all”.

Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, has experienced violent conflict for many years, part of wider unrest in Ethiopia, a multiethnic country where power has long been contested between federal and regional authorities.

Source: News Agencies