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Why did Ethiopia block social media?

When answers to university exams were posted online, the Ethiopian government responded by blocking access to social media.

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) address a news conference at the National Palace during Mr. Netanyahu's state visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 7, 2016.

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

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Ethiopians are experiencing a government-imposed social media blackout supposedly targeted at distracted students.

After a massive online leak of university entrance exam questions forced the nationwide tests to be cancelled, Ethiopia's government cracked down in a big way, blocking access to social media during the exam retake. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Viber were inaccessible starting Saturday morning.

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It's a temporary measure until Wednesday. Social media have proven to be a distraction for students," government spokesman Getachew Reda told the BBC. But many Ethiopians are wary of the implications of this move coming from a government that has a track record of silencing oppositional voices on the internet.

Ethiopia was one of the first African countries to censor the internet, beginning in 2006 with opposition blogs, and it’s frequently impossible for citizens there to access dissident blogs and human rights websites.

This is a dangerous precedent. There is no transparency about who took the decision and for how long. This time it is for a few days, but next time it might be for a month,” Daniel Berhane, the prominent blogger behind the website “Horn Affairs” told AFP. Berhane believes that the Ethiopian authorities are testing new internet filtering tools and gauging the reaction of the public.

The government had never before blocked social media nationwide. Previously, people in the Oromo region have reported difficulties accessing some social network sites during anti-government protests there, but the government denied responsibility. A group supporting greater rights for Ethiopia's Oromo people claimed responsibility for leaking the pictures of the test in May that forced the cancellation of the original version of the college exam, in what was widely perceived an embarrassment for the national government.

Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, told Quartz Africa that a nationwide block of social media because of leaked questions is “completely disproportionate” as “shutdowns like this impact broader society as a whole – businesses lose a lot of money, journalists can’t report the news and it creates a culture of impunity.”

The social media ban is the latest hurdle for Ethiopians seeking to offer an alternative to the narrative put forward by the state-dominated traditional media. The government charged 10 reform-minded bloggers and journalists with terrorism offenses ahead of the 2015 elections, in a move US State Department officials warned at the time would have “a chilling effect on the media and all Ethiopians’ right to freedom of expression.”

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the restriction of internet access as a human rights violation.