9 September 2012

Ethiopia: Nations Footprint in Social Media

The Just-Ending Year Has Uplifted Ethiopia From Its Long Overdue Invisibility in the Social Media. Both Good and Bad Events Have Contributed to the Spotlight the Nation Obtained in the Expanding Global Community of Networked Individuals.

The weight of events, however, is biased towards those bad enough to send shocks to the spines of Ethiopian Netizens.

Past Year Leaves Historical Ethiopian Footprint in Social Media

For most American art critics, there is no other television show like the Simpsons that engaged in parodying politically charged social issues. The show, an animated situation comedy (sitcom) broadcast on the American television station, FOX, for 23 years, is known for its satire on American culture and society.

Sett in a fictional American town, Springfield, the Simpsons is usually about a typical working middle class family in the United States but most of the time its scope extended to global issues. From fundamentalist religion to racism, gender to sexuality, nuclear plants to state of environment, it raised diverse issues and views.

On this longest-running scripted television show, an issue that related with Ethiopia was entertained in the just ending Ethiopian calendar year. The show dedicated segments of the fifth episode of its 23rd season for Ethiopian cuisine and culture. The episode, titled "the food wife", showed all five members of the Simpsons Family enjoying Ethiopian dishes in an imaginary restaurant located in Little Ethiopia street of Los Angeles.

The episode, which promoted the Ethiopian culture of eating from one plate and feeding each other through the main character of the series, gained an instant popularity. It was estimated to be seen by around 7.5 million people when it broadcasted in November 2011, but most Ethiopians saw it after the segment uploaded on You Tube, a video sharing social media site.

The Gursha segment of the video became viral among Ethiopians in the social media. Ethiopian netizens (people who have significant footprints in the Internet) shared the video on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. In their introduction statements and comments of the video, many Ethiopians could not hide their amusement of seeing an Ethiopian custom on such an award winning and popular show.

"We love when we see Ethiopian culture injected into pop culture," celebrated Ethiopian-born Swedish raised Chef Marcus Samuelsson post on his blog. "The episode was accurate in finding traditional Ethiopian music and also highlighted the custom of Gursha where Ethiopians lovingly offer food to one another."

The Simpsons episode was not the only most-circulated video in the year 2004. Three other videos were also a hit among Ethiopian Facebookers, Tweeps and Bloggers. The first two are linked with Ethiopian domestic workers that were working in Libya and Lebanon. The Libyan one was high profile for the involvement of the family of the late President of the country, Muammar Gaddafi.

The incident was first made public via CNN at the end of August 2011 but has got the attention of most Ethiopians after the New Year celebration of 2004. The CNN video that showed a seriously injured Ethiopian nanny, Shewaye Molla, 30, who worked for Gaddafi's fourth son, Hannibal, angered many Ethiopians. Hannibal's wife, Aline, poured boiled water because Shewaye refused to silence the crying Gaddafi's granddaughter.

When CNN found Shewaye, she was nursing a three month injury. The TV footage revealed the red wounds that covered Shewaye's scalp and face. Beyond sharing the horrifying video of Shewaye, Ethiopians launched a campaign that demanded a justice for Shewaye. They also created a virtual discussion forum on Facebook and collected petitions from the Ethiopian online community.

"The inhumane treatment of [Shewaye Molla] by Alaine Skaf, Gaddafi's daughter-in-law, brought to light the unimaginable ordeal that our sisters in different countries around the world are going through," a group formed to collect petition stated on its message. "Countless others are still suffering undiscovered, not to mention thousands more planning to cross the border only to possibly end up like Shewaye."

Similar reactions poured from the social media circle when a video that showed an the Ethiopian maid, Alem Dechasa, beaten by a man and forced into his car in front of Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon appeared on the Net. The footage, taken by mobile, was first released by the private TV station, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBCI), and later uploaded on You Tube and Facebook in March 2012. The video sparked outrage among Ethiopians.

Following the reaction of Ethiopians all over the world, LBCI identified the perpetrator of the act through his plate number. Though police took Alem to a Psychiatric hospital after the incident, doctors reported after few days that she committed suicide. Ethiopian Facebookers, who were angered and requested perpetrator to brought justice, did not stop with just campaigning only.

"I have been very saddened by this story and wanted to do something to at least make sure that Alem's death was not in vain," Eden Hagos wrote on a group page, Justice for Alem Dechasa. "It is easy to feel overwhelmed with all of the bad in the world but maybe we can do our part to make sure that Alem's death helps others who are in similar situations."

Nearly one billion people around the world use facebook, one of the social network sites launched in February 2004. Africa, the fifth continent in terms of facebook penetration, has 44.9 million active users. People who are using social media in the continent tremendously increased. Likewise, the number of Facebook users in Ethiopia showed a 45pc increment in the last two years. Currently, Ethiopia has 663,900 users, which puts the country in the 91st postion on a Facebook rank of 200 countries and 10th in the continent. The majority of Ethiopia Facebook users fall in the age range of 25 to 34.

On another well known social network site, Twitter, Ethiopia has relatively small number of users in the world. Currently over half a billion people uses Twitter as the means of expressing and sharing their ideas. Although the number is small in Ethiopia, individuals using this social network stood at 6,454, much lower than that of Egypt, the top country in Africa in terms of Twitter users.

To express their condolence and to shade light on the appalling human right abuse on Ethiopian domestic workers, Ethiopian netizens organized a candlelight vigil ceremony using Facebook. Hundreds showed up at the ceremony and agreed to raise money to support her two children. The idea later developed to establish a group, first named the Good Samaritan and then changed to the Good Ethiopian, and organized a fundraising event for Alem's family.

Just by getting together on Facebook, 16 members of the group able to raise around 24,475 Br and delivered to Alem's family. Though, it could not bring the intended result like the Good Ethiopian, campaigns were launched on the release of journalists and bloggers convicted of terrorism. Among them, the most popular was Eskinder Nega's case. Since his arrest in September 2011, he was in the limelight throughout the year.

The terrorism related charges brought against the popular blogger stirred a heated debate. His trial at the Third Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court, the verdict and the sentencing has got large attention among Ethiopian Facebookers and Tweeps. Eskinder, who won the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award by the international literary and human right organisation, PEN American Center, while in jail, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in July 2012.

The trial of the two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who were arrested in July 2011 in Somali Region, was also another popular online hit. Like Eskinder, the two Europeans were charged on terrorism related crimes. Johan and Martin were convicted charges of on unlawful entry to Ethiopia and supporting terrorism and were sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2011. Facebook pages that demanded their release and beg for amnesty still run on behalf of them.

As those who advocate for journalists raised the issue of freedom of expression on the Net, thousands of Ethiopian Muslims demanded for freedom of religion online since the second quarter of the just ending Ethiopian year. Their online activism gained momentum in the middle of year when openly protesting the alleged government interference on their religious affairs every Friday.

Despite the government's warning of not tolerating any activities to create instability using Islam as a pretext, the Muslims actively used social media to coordinate protests. A number of groups were created to serve as a platform for organizing demonstrations held near to mosques.

After each Friday prayers, pictures and videos, taken in Addis Abeba and other cities in the country, flooded these groups' pages. Their live reporting of events and well articulated messages made them famous among the Ethiopian online community. One such popular group page, Dimstachen Yisema (let our voices be heard), currently has around 14,000 members.

In the same month, another protest gained an equal attention online. Abebe Gelaw, a journalist working for the Dispora based television station, ESAT, interrupted Prime Minster Meles Zenawi amid addressing a sideline meeting of G8 Summit in the United States. Meles, one of the four African leaders invited for the Summit, was talking about food security when Abebe broke in the middle and protested about the detention of journalists and human rights abuse in the country.

The footage, which showed Abebe shouting at Meles, quickly spread like a wild fire among Ethiopians on Facebook and Twitter. Though, all videos uploaded on You Tube, were unviewable a day later in Ethiopia, they circulated among Ethiopians using mobile devices via Bluetooth.

Aside from two events, the month of May also brought a bizarre development for netizens. A vague article about a draft proclamation on telecom fraud offences that ban voice over internet protocol (VoIP) raised the eyebrows of many. The bill failed to specify whether the ban of internet telephony is for commercial or private purpose. This led to the interpretation that using services such as Skype for private purposes is also banned.

Despite government's repetitive disclaimer, the ban supposed of Skype in Ethiopia went viral among the online community. Ethiopian netizens were surprised and shocked at the draft law and showed their disappointment in social media. Many shared this punchy line of "a 30-second call using Skype in Ethiopia can land you 15-years in prison."

Later when the proclamation was approved in the parliament, it allowed Skype for private use but still many in the online world believe that the software is banned in Ethiopia. This is not the only case that the government labored hard to reverse after the damage already occurred. The rumor about the death of President Girma Woldegirogis and Prime Minster Meles Zenawi were rife on social media for days and months, whereas the government was too late to release information on the health situation of the two leaders.

Before his death was officially declared, Prime Minster Zenawi's two months absence from the public scene brought the influence of the social media to the limelight. From breaking Meles' related stories to fueling speculation and confusion, Facebook and Twitter has played a bigger role on the Meles saga.

Writes Tesfalem Waldyes, Special to Fortune.

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