A Skype call in Ethiopia could land you in jail for 15 years

A Skype call in Ethiopia could cost users a 15-year prison sentence, according to a new legislation that criminalises the use of Voice over IP services (VoIP) such as Skype, Google Talk and other forms of online calling.

The state-owned internet service provider, the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (Ethio-Telcom), has started monitoring online traffic to enforce compliance with the law, which came into effect on 24 May.

The move is aimed at protecting national security and telecoms carriers from losing revenue to Skype.

The legislation also empowers Ethio-Telcom to prohibit the use of video chatting, social media, e-mail and other data transfer services.

The government will also have the right to inspect and ban any imported voice communication equipment.

The punishment ranges from hefty fines to 15 years in jail.

Ethiopia has a long track record of digital restrictions. It has closed down internet cafés offering VoIP services and in December 2006, made it mandatory for such cafes to register the names and addresses of their customers.

Bloggers too face restrictions, a report by the OpenNet initiative said. The state has blocked all blogs hosted at Blogspot and Nazret as well as the Tor anonymous browsing system.

Severe restrictions and censorship have also been imposed on printers and the print media.

Reporters Without Borders has criticised the initiative. "It could drag Ethiopia back more than two decades as regards media freedom, to the time of Mengistu's brutal dictatorship in pre 1991 Ethiopia," said a spokesperson.

"Allowing printers to control editorial content is tantamount to giving them court powers. On what basis do these state-owned companies assume the right and independence to interpret the law? Does this reflect a government desire to suppress all criticism before it is voiced?" they said.