Ethiopia's leader promised to protect freedom of expression. But he keeps flicking the internet kill switch

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(CNN)Abel Wabella is no stranger to the dangers of pursuing digital activism in Ethiopia.

In 2014 he was charged under a controversial anti-terrorism law, which has been described as providing the state with "unnecessarily far-reaching powers" by Amnesty International.
Wabella spent over a year in jail because of his role as co-founder of Zone9, a blogging collective that highlighted human rights abuses, corruption and political repression in the country.
    It wasn't until 2018, during a period of mass reform and resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, that the final charges were dropped against the group's members.
      "When Abiy Ahmed came to power, he released journalists, re-branding the country as one with a bright future," Wabella said.
      As well as freeing journalists, Prime Minister Abiy also released political prisoners, unblocked hundreds of websites, and appointed women to half of his cabinet posts.
      The changes were part of a new agenda, which he pledged would respect freedom of expression. "In a democratic system, the government allows citizens to express their ideas freely without fear," he said in April 2018.

        Unreliable connections

        During the past month, however, there have been several nationwide internet blackouts, leaving friends and families disconnected, businesses unable to operate, and journalists prevented from reporting on events.
        Recent developments have left many in Ethiopia skeptical about the durability and sincerity of Abiy's reforms. Atnaf Brhane, a fellow co-founder of Zone9, said that the internet shutdowns had created "a bad record for a 'reformist' leader."
        CNN made several attempts to reach the Ethiopian government but did not get a response.
        The most recent internet blackout began on Saturday, June 22 after reports of an attempted coup in the Amhara region. After 100 hours without internet access, the network was gradually restored, although it wasn't until July 2 that mobile data finally returned.
        There was no formal explanation from the government but the state-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, the country's lone telecoms provider, issued an apology and told CNN at the time the company would credit customers for services that were affected during the shutdown.
        The shutdown followed another blackout earlier in June. The disruptions combined have meant that Ethiopians did not have reliable connections for almost half the month.

        A return to old habits

        As of the time of publishing, complete access is yet to be restored as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and some VPN apps remain blocked by the government.
        The continued blocks represent a significant barrier to freedom of expression and the right to information. In fact, "in Ethiopia, Facebook is basically equal to the internet," Wabella, who now runs the media outlet, Addis Zaybe, said.
        He added the shutdown forced him to close his offices for over a week, preventing him from publishing any new stories or publicizing their work on social media.
        Ethiopia restores internet after one week outage