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Monday, March 9, 2015

The Ethiopian government appears again to be using Internet spying tools to attempt to eavesdrop on journalists based in suburban Washington, said security researchers who call such high-tech intrusions a serious threat to human rights and press freedoms worldwide.
The journalists, who work for Ethiopian Satellite Television in Alexandria, Va., provide one of the few independent news sources to their homeland through regular television and radio feeds — to the irritation of the government there, which has accused journalists of "terrorism" and repeatedly jammed the signals of foreign broadcasters.
The struggle increasingly has stretched into cyberspace, where malicious software sold to governments for law enforcement purposes has been observed targeting the journalists, researchers said. The most recent documented case, from December, came several months after The Washington Post first detailed the government's apparent deployment of the Internet spying tools, which though far cruder, offer some of the same snooping capabilities enjoyed by the National Security Agency and the intelligence services of other advanced nations.
"This is the second round of coordinated attempts at installing spyware so they can monitor our systems and uncover who our sources are inside of the Ethiopia," said Neamin Zeleke, the managing director of Ethiopian Satellite Television, which is commonly known as ESAT. "This is a really tenacious attempt to crack down on freedom of expression."
Zeleke became suspicious when a message arrived in his inbox in December with an attachment claiming to have information about upcoming elections. Normally, that's the sort of information ESAT is eager to get its hands on: Ethiopia is ruled by a government notoriously unfriendly to the press — leaving much of the independent journalism on local affairs to outfits such as ESAT that operate outside of the country but rely on sources from inside Ethiopia.
But editors and reporters at ESAT have become wary of e-mails from unknown senders in recent years — and for good reason.
In 2013, the computer of one of Zeleke's colleagues was infected with malware after the colleague opened what appeared to be a Microsoft Word file. They later learned that it was probably a commercial spying tool sold to governments around the world by the Italy-based vendor Hacking Team, according to researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
So after receiving the recent suspicious e-mail, Zeleke said he forwarded it to the Citizen Lab researchers instead of opening the attachment.
The e-mail, along with other messages to Ethiopian journalists, show that Ethiopia appears to be continuing to wage a digital campaign against independent journalists — including some based within the United States — with the help of updated versions of Hacking Team software, according to the report's authors Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton and Sarah McCune.

(New York) – The Ethiopian government has renewed efforts to silence independent voices abroad by using apparent foreign spyware, Human Rights Watch said today. The Ethiopian authorities should immediately cease digital attacks on journalists, while foreign surveillance technology sellers should investigate alleged abuses linked to their products.

Independent researchers at the Toronto-based research center Citizen Lab on March 9, 2015, reported new attempts by Ethiopia to hack into computers and accounts of Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) employees based in the United States. The attacks bear similarities to earlier attempts to target Ethiopian journalists outside Ethiopia dating back to December 2013. ESAT is an independent, diaspora-run television and radio station.

“Ethiopia’s government has over the past year intensified its assault on media freedom by systematically trying to silence journalists,” saidCynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These digital attacks threaten journalists’ ability to protect the safety of their sources and to avoid retaliation.”

The government has repressed independent media in Ethiopia ahead of the general elections scheduled for May, Human Rights Watch said. Many privately owned print publications heavily self-censor coverage of politically sensitive issues or have shut down. In the last year, at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers have been criminally charged, at least six publications have closed amid a campaign of harassment, and many journalists have fled the country.

Many Ethiopians turn to ESAT and other foreign stations to obtain news and analysis that is independent of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. However, intrusive surveillance of these news organizations undermines their ability to protect sources and further restricts the media environment ahead of the elections. Government authorities have repeatedly intimidated, harassed, and arbitrarily detained sources providing information to ESAT and other foreign stations.

Citizen Lab’s analysis suggests the attacks were carried out with spyware called Remote Control System (RCS) sold by the Italian firm Hacking Team, which sells surveillance and hacking technology. This spyware was allegedly used in previous attempts to infect computers of ESAT employees in December 2013. If successfully installed on a target’s computer, the spyware would allow a government controlling the software access to activity on a computer or phone, including email, files, passwords typed into the device, contact lists, and audio and video from the device’s microphone and camera.

Citizen Lab also found that the spyware used in the attacks against ESAT appeared to have been updated as recently as December 2014. On November 19, a security researcher, Claudio Guarnieri, along with several nongovernmental organizations, publicly released a tool called Detekt, which can be used to scan computers for Hacking Team RCS and other spyware. Citizen Lab’s testing determined that Detekt was able to successfully recognize the version of RCS used in a November attack, but not the version used in a December attack. Citizen Lab concluded that this may indicate that the software had been updated sometime between the two attempts.

These new findings, if accurate, raise serious concerns that Hacking Team has not addressed evidence of abuseof its product by the Ethiopian government and may be continuing to facilitate that abuse through updates or other support, Human Rights Watch said.

Hacking Team states that it sells exclusively to governments, particularly law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The firm told Human Rights Watch in 2014 that “we expect our clients to behave responsibly and within the law as it applies to them” and that the firm will suspend support for its technology if it believes the customer has used it “to facilitate gross human rights abuses” or “who refuse to agree to or comply with provisions in [the company’s] contracts that describe intended use of HT [Hacking Team] software.” Hacking Team has also stated that it has suspended support for their product in the past, in which case the “product soon becomes useless.”

Media reports and research by independent human rights organizations in the past year have documented serious human rights violations by the Ethiopian government that at times have been facilitated by misuse of surveillance powers. Although spyware companies market their products as “lawful intercept” solutions used to fight serious crime or counterterrorism, the Ethiopian government has abused its counterterrorism laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists who merely report on public affairs or politically sensitive issues. Ethiopian laws that authorize surveillance do not adequately protect the right to privacy, due process, and other basic rights, and are inconsistent with international human rights requirements.

Hacking Team previously told Human Rights Watch that “to maintain their confidentiality” the firm does not “confirm or deny the existence of any individual customer or their country location.” On February 25, 2015, Human Rights Watch wrote to the firm to ask whether it has investigated possible abuse of its products by the Ethiopian government to target independent media and hack into ESAT computers. In response, on March 6 a representative of the firm emailed Human Rights Watch that the company “take[s] precautions with every client to assure that they do not abuse our systems, and, we investigate when allegations of misuse arise” and that the firm is “attempting to understand the circumstances in this case.” The company also stated that “it can be quite difficult to get to actual facts particularly since we do not operate surveillance systems in the field for our clients.” Hacking Team raised unspecified questions about the evidence presented to identify the spyware used in these attacks.

Human Rights Watch also asked the company whether contractual provisions to which governmental customers agree address governments’ obligations under international human rights law to protect the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and other human rights. In a separate March 7 response from the firm’s representative, Hacking Team told Human Rights Watch that the use of its technology is “governed by the laws of the countries of our clients,” and sales of its technology are regulated by the Italian Economics Ministry under the Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral export controls regime for dual-use technologies. The company stated that it relies “on the International community to enforce its standards for human rights protection.”

The firm has not reported on what, if any, investigation was undertaken in response to the March 2014 Human Rights Watch report discussing how spyware that appeared to be Hacking Team’s RCS was used to target ESAT employees in 2013. In its March 7 response, the company told Human Rights Watch that it will “take appropriate action depending on what we can determine,” but they “do not report the results of our investigation to the press or other groups, because we consider this to be an internal business matter.”

Without more disclosure of how Hacking Team has addressed potential abuses linked to its business, the strength of its human rights policy will be in question, Human Rights Watch said. 
Sellers of surveillance systems have a responsibility to respect human rights, which includes preventing, mitigating, and addressing abuses linked to its business operations, regardless of whether government customers adequately protect rights.

“Hacking Team should publicly disclose what steps it has taken to avoid abuses of its product such as those alleged against the Ethiopian government,” Wong said. “The company protects the confidentiality of its customers, yet the Ethiopian government appears to use its spyware to compromise the privacy and security of journalists and their sources.” 
Girma Seifu Maru, the sole opposition-party representative in Ethiopia’s 547-member Parliament, in a cafeteria near his private office in Addis Ababa. He says he won’t run for re-election in May.
Girma Seifu Maru, the sole opposition-party representative in Ethiopia’s 547-member Parliament, in a cafeteria near his private office in Addis Ababa. He says he won’t run for re-election in May. PHOTO: PETTERIK WIGGERS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—The sole voice of opposition in Ethiopia’s 547-member national legislature will soon fall silent—the latest in a long line of people who have given up the fight as the government actively mutes dissent while pursuing populist economic expansion.
Since 2010, Girma Seifu Maru has tried to raise his voice against political abuses while 546 fellow legislators consistently support the government.
But in February, the government electoral board replaced the leadership of Mr. Girma’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party with its own people, effectively making him a man without a party and further weakening an enfeebled opposition.
The board said the party violated its own internal bylaws for appointing leaders. Mr. Girma said the government wanted to break the party, as it has so many others, before campaigning for an election in May kicked off last month.
“The ruling party has already completed the election,” said Mr. Girma, who has decided he won’t run again for a seat in the legislature.
Many pro-democracy activists had hoped for an easing of political constraints following the 2012 death of Ethiopia’s strongman prime minister, Meles Zenawi. But while the government under his young technocratic successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, liberalized the economy, it also tightened the political reins in a manner reminiscent of China and Singapore—Asian economies that modernized while suppressing political dissent.
“They still think that you can shut people up and close down anyone who disagrees with you and get away with it,” said Richard Dowden, the director of Britain’s Royal African Society. “And the fact is, they have.”
Like China, Ethiopia has focused on spurring growth as a way of lifting people out of poverty and providing outlets for aspiration to a nascent middle class. The government is building a light rail in the capital, Addis Ababa, along with a giant dam in the northwest and roads across the country. It has opened hospitals and increased the number of teachers in schools. The promise of a better economic future has made it easy to silence critics, said Mr. Dowden.
A government spokesman said actions have been taken against certain politicians or journalists because they have tried to instigate violence. “Some still want to create havoc, to destabilize the system,” said the spokesman, Shemelis Kemal. Replacing the party leadership of the UDJ party was legal, he said, and served to endorse a faction of the party that proved itself more legitimate.
He rejected allegations that Ethiopia has tried to quash dissent, pointing out that the country has 90 opposition parties and that freedom of speech is protected by the constitution.
Yet in the capital, residents are reticent to discuss politics with a reporter. Phone calls are monitored. Websites critical of the government are blocked, including a number of online political publications written by Ethiopians who have emigrated. Those who stay and criticize the government have difficulty finding jobs or winning business contracts, residents say.
Under Prime Minister Hailemariam, Ethiopia’s government increased enforcement of a 2009 law that limited foreign funding for organizations working on human rights or governance issues, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result, many such groups have shut down. In July, the government jailed 10 bloggers and journalists on charges of associating with groups trying to overthrow the government.
Mr. Shemelis said some of those jailed weren’t journalists and none of them were jailed because of anything they published.
Also in July, the government arrested the leaders of three main opposition parties, including Mr. Girma’s UDJ.
Asked why those in the opposition persist amid repression, Mr. Girma says: “If you are in Ethiopia, the question must be the other way: Why are you not in politics?”
Meanwhile, security forces on at least two occasions last year shot live rounds into masses of people protesting plans to expand the footprint of the capital city into areas controlled by other ethnic groups. Several dozen people were killed.
Mr. Shemelis said the officers were responding with “proportional force” to rioters who came at them with grenades, machetes and handguns.
Even as Ethiopia’s gross domestic product grew at a double-digit pace in 2012 and 2013, the country’s democratic character declined. In a ranking by the U.S. human-rights group Freedom House, Ethiopia has fallen from “partly free” in 2010 to “not free” today.
Last year, Ethiopia ranked 32 out of 52 countries surveyed in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance—a modest improvement over 2013 as gains in health, welfare and security offset declines in political freedom and human rights. The index, issued by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, provides an annual assessment of government on the continent.
The upshot: Ethiopia’s political opposition is barely visible heading into May’s election. Even some opposition parties who have registered—such as the youth-dominated Blue Party—have said they aren’t sure if they are going to put up candidates.
As recently as 2009, Ethiopia’s Parliament had more than 100 opposition lawmakers. But in a 2010 election criticized by the European Union and the U.S. as unfairly influenced by the ruling party, only Mr. Girma—who ran in a district of the capital dominated by the opposition—and an independent candidate won seats. The independent lawmaker subsequently aligned himself with the ruling party, leaving Mr. Girma as the only elected critic of the government.
Mr. Girma held no illusions that he would sway the decisions of the ruling party, but he planned to use his role to voice the anger at government abuse of power that he argues most Ethiopians feel, even if they would never say so publicly.
He said that once, shortly before Mr. Meles’s death, he accused the former prime minister of misusing terrorism laws to arrest political opponents. Mr. Meles dismissed Mr. Girma in front of Parliament as a neoliberal. The chamber erupted in laughter.
Mr. Girma found more support outside the legislature. He became a regular guest on Ethiopian talk shows and a speaker at international symposiums. As for Parliament, he came to hold a dimmer view.
“It was boring,” he says. “You always talk and no one listens.”
Mr. Girma doesn’t socialize with his parliamentary counterparts—in part because he suspects the ruling party doesn’t allow its members to mix with him and because he considers himself more educated than most in the chamber (He has a master’s degree in economics while many in Parliament have only completed high school or a vocational degree). The national Parliament spends its days approving reports and statements by ministers—any debating happens in closed-door meetings before issues reach the legislative chamber.
As the May vote approaches, Ethiopia has received only muted criticism from the West, including the U.S. Some analysts see Washington to maintain a balance between criticism and security interests—the U.S., has a drone base in the country and provides support to local troops who are serving as peacekeepers in the region’s conflicts.
Ethiopia “has been a major partner of the United States not just in counterterrorism but in creating stability in Africa,” said David Shinn, who was U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia in the late 1990s. The U.S., he adds, is “always weighing how hard it can push on the democratization side and the human rights side.”
Sitting in his small office in a shopping complex in Addis Ababa, Mr. Girma said he plans to try to focus more on his outside businesses. He said he played the only political role that was open to him—tokenism—and did what he could with it. “I have tried to play my role properly, and for that I feel good,” he said. “But usually they are in favor of what helps them stay in power. I think their only motive is this one.”
Write to Heidi Vogt at heidi.vogt@wsj.com