Elsabet Samuel (PhD) is a distinguished expert in media development and human rights, currently serving as an independent consultant and researcher. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of subjects, such as freedom of expression, social movements, digital rights, and media development.
After successfully completing her PhD at Addis Ababa University’s Center for Human Rights, Elsabet is currently immersed in writing a thought-provoking book that explores the intricate relationship between freedom of expression on the internet and its impact on social movements in Ethiopia. The book focuses on the ongoing political protests and social movements in the country, meticulously analyzing their role in driving political and legal transformations.
Elsabet firmly emphasizes the importance of establishing a conducive political environment to ensure Ethiopia’s political stability and the empowerment of its citizens to exercise their rights, including holding individuals accountable for the betterment of the nation and the well-being of the public.
In an interview with Abraham Tekle of The Reporter, Elsabet delved into a range of pressing issues, covering the significance of human rights, instances of abuse, the crucial role of freedom of expression and the media, Transitional Justice initiatives, and the importance of political and social accountability in Ethiopia. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: As an expert in Human Rights, can you offer your insights on the prevailing landscape of human rights abuses in Ethiopia, spanning from the previous government to the present day?
Elsabet Samuel (PhD): Determining which human rights are breached more frequently than others is a challenging task due to the interconnected nature of most human rights. When implementing human rights, it is important to consider them as a unified whole. However, given the current context of our country, we find ourselves in a transitional period, both politically and economically. This transition often presents obstacles that hinder or compromise the rights of individuals or groups.
Nevertheless, there are also positive aspects to consider. For instance, notable transformations have occurred in the legal and policy frameworks, which can contribute to the enhancement of human rights implementation.
By examining the federal constitution and other relevant proclamations in our possession, we can conclude that Ethiopia has commendable laws and policies in place to protect and promote human rights, even in the face of various challenges.
However, the major hurdle lies in the effective implementation of these laws and policies. This issue is closely linked to the country’s weak institutional capacity and the prevailing perception of human rights and democratic rights.
Can you offer a thorough explanation about the concept of Freedom of Expression, and clarify its connection with Human Rights, including how they overlap?
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that forms the foundation of all other rights, allowing individuals to freely express their opinions, interact with others, join like-minded groups, and peacefully assemble. These actions are essential for individuals to exercise their human rights.
Furthermore, the right to life is closely intertwined with freedom of expression. Therefore, safeguarding, promoting, and respecting freedom of expression is crucial for protecting all human rights and is a vital aspect of advancing democracy within society.
In essence, freedom of expression grants individuals and groups the inherent right to hold opinions and communicate their beliefs, regardless of any circumstances or challenges they may encounter. However, it is important to recognize that this right is not absolute and is subject to limitations and regulations.
Understanding the concept of minimizing harm is crucial to comprehending these restrictions. When exercising their freedom of expression, individuals must also consider the rights of others and refrain from interfering with or infringing upon them.
So, these rights have legitimate restrictions that need to be defined by the law and deemed necessary within society. It is imperative for everyone to understand why and how freedom of expression is limited or regulated in specific contexts.
Nonetheless, it remains indisputable that individuals are free to exercise their human rights while respecting the rights of others.
Can you provide an overview of the current state of freedom of expression in Ethiopia and evaluate the practical extent to which people can exercise these rights in reality, considering the Constitution explicitly guarantees this right to all individuals, albeit with some limitations?
Exercising one’s freedom can face various challenges, particularly in the face of political circumstances and oppressive regimes. These obstacles often hinder individuals from freely expressing their rights, especially when there are restrictions on the platforms and mediums available for voicing their opinions.
It is crucial to acknowledge that freedom of expression is interconnected with other fundamental rights, such as freedom of association and assembly.
However, it is important to understand that the ability to exercise rights extends beyond the realm of media alone. In a political context where citizens are prohibited from forming assemblies and expressing their political opinions, the concept of true freedom becomes questionable. Thus, it is imperative to establish an enabling environment that allows individuals to exercise their rights without constraints.
To achieve this, a comprehensive legal framework should be implemented. Such a framework should not only ensure that individuals understand their rights and freedoms but also facilitate their practical exercise within a defined structure. By providing citizens with the necessary support and guidance, they can confidently engage in expressing themselves and exercising their rights.
What is the significance of the media’s role in fostering and protecting freedom of expression within a nation?
I believe that the media should serve as a platform that allows all citizens to freely express their opinions while respecting the rights of others and avoiding interference. It is crucial for the media to fulfill its role in serving the citizens by providing them with time, platform, and space to articulate their perspectives.
In the promotion and safeguarding of freedom of expression, the media plays a vital role as a cornerstone of democracy. Beyond its responsibility to report news, the media should actively advocate for the practice of freedom of expression through various important functions.
Firstly, the media should serve as a platform for the unrestricted flow of information and ideas. It should strive to deliver accurate, unbiased, and objective reporting, empowering citizens to make informed decisions and actively participate in public discourse. By facilitating the dissemination of diverse opinions and viewpoints, the media fosters a dynamic and inclusive democratic environment.
When discussing the openness of the media, it is important to consider the context of the country and the regulatory institutions overseeing the media and its platforms. In today’s digital age, online media platforms have gained significant importance as spaces where citizens exercise their rights and share their diverse ideas.
However, challenges arise when the media attempts to filter the opinions of others through the lens of their owners or institutional regulations. It is important to note that the media becomes more than just a platform; it becomes a tool that citizens can use to amplify their voices and raise their concerns within society, contributing to the betterment of society as a whole.
Considering your point about online media platforms serving as avenues for citizens to exercise their rights, it is important to acknowledge that these platforms are susceptible to misuse, resulting in negative consequences. Hence, the question arises: To what extent can the misuse of these platforms, despite its negative impact, still be regarded as a legitimate manifestation of freedom of expression?
Yes, and I firmly hold this stance.
From my perspective, using social media platforms is not a crime in itself. It is a right of citizens and a powerful tool that allows individuals to amplify their voices.
Social media serves as a platform where people can freely share ideas, communicate with others, and express themselves without limitations. It provides a public space for individuals to connect with others and reflect on their own thoughts. While social media offers freedom of expression, it is crucial to recognize the need for limitations to prevent the spread of harmful content.
Limitations should be in place to curb destructive voices, such as hate speech and inflammatory language that can lead to social crises. However, implementing these limitations can pose challenges.
Regulating all social media outlets and monitoring the actions of every individual participant is practically impossible. It is crucial to hold international intermediaries or social media platforms accountable for individuals who misuse the platform. This requires collaborative efforts, time, and rigorous work to determine the acceptability of certain content.
Social media companies themselves have implemented transparency policies that require them to collaborate with law enforcement organizations. These policies enable the removal or restriction of inflammatory content for the betterment of society. This practice is known as “Content Moderation.”
Such policies aim to ensure that social media platforms are used responsibly and harmful content dealt with appropriately.
Does Ethiopia have such mechanisms in place to address misuse and mitigate the negative consequences associated with it?
The Content Moderation transparency policy applies to all countries worldwide, including Ethiopia. This policy provides a mechanism for Ethiopia to hold companies accountable for transmitting derogatory content. An example of this occurred in Ethiopia after the death of the late singer Hachalu Hundessa in June 2021, where a hate speech was posted on Google platform.
I am not aware of the outcome of the Ethiopian government’s request to Google to remove the content. Nonetheless, it is commendable that the Ethiopian government utilized the existing transparency policy mechanism to address the mistake.
Facebook has also utilized the Content Moderation mechanism to remove content that contains hate speech and inflammatory language that could harm specific societies. Notably, positive results were achieved in Ethiopia and Myanmar through a campaign initiated by civil society organizations.
As a result of this campaign, a new system called “lock your picture” was implemented in both countries. This system allows individuals to restrict someone’s access to their profile without being notified of the activity.
Despite the inherent right for countries to implement Content Moderation transparency policies, Ethiopia has experienced notable adverse effects, including those resulting from content shared on social media platforms, including a prominent media organization. How can we distinguish these experiences from past encounters? What factors contributed to our failure in leveraging access that led to these negative consequences across different regions of the country?
Determining the full awareness and intentions of individual citizens regarding the impact of their social media posts is a complex task that necessitates careful examination. However, we can approach the question from a different perspective.
In our country, we have robust civil society organizations that express deep concern regarding the current situation and actively work to educate the youth about the negative consequences of their actions. Furthermore, we have social media influencers who genuinely prioritize the best interests of the country.
From this standpoint, we can acknowledge the ongoing efforts made by civil society organizations and social media influencers to promote knowledge and information about social media usage, as well as the significance of sharing positive content. However, addressing this issue necessitates a collaborative effort involving media regulatory bodies, young people, media organizations, and civil society organizations.
Are you implying that the media regulatory body should initiate the regulation or censorship of social media posts?
I strongly oppose any form of censorship in the country as I firmly believe in the fundamental value of freedom of expression. Nonetheless, I also acknowledge the significance of responsible behavior and acting in the best interests of both our nation and society at large. It is undeniably a daunting task for regulatory bodies to effectively monitor all social media platforms.
Hence, my argument is based on the realization that it is simply impractical to regulate each outlet separately. Instead, our efforts should be directed towards mitigating the adverse consequences by promoting cooperation and embracing internationally recognized content moderation transparency policies.
From a professional standpoint, to what extent can we characterize our media as being free?
In recent years, Ethiopia has made significant strides in its media laws, both for traditional and online platforms, resulting in a positive impact on the freedom of media organizations and their day-to-day operations. These progressive media laws have effectively decriminalized defamation, marking a significant step forward.
Furthermore, there are proclamations in place that actively promote media pluralization and encourage responsible online media communication. These proclamations indirectly support media freedom and empower organizations to exercise their rights.
Another crucial aspect to consider is the presence of institutions that govern the media sector.
Ethiopia boasts institutions such as the Ethiopian Media Authority, which is responsible for enforcing media laws and ensuring accountability in response to public demands. The Federal Ombudsman also plays a crucial role in safeguarding the right to access information.
However, concerns remain regarding the effectiveness of these institutions in fulfilling their responsibilities and meeting public expectations. It is essential to address identified gaps and areas for improvement to strengthen the sector.
The third issue pertains to the media organizations themselves and their organizational structure. It is critical to assess the extent to which the media is free from external influences. While positive developments have occurred, such as increased diversity of ideas through different media outlets, concerns persist regarding the overall state of media freedom in Ethiopia.
This includes taking into account the role and freedom of journalists. Achieving a vibrant, informative, and free media sector in the country necessitates collaboration among all stakeholders.
The rise of polarization and sensationalism in Ethiopian media is concerning, casting a shadow over the country’s media landscape. This disconcerting trend has become the “new normal” in the industry. How do you perceive this unfolding evolution and the far-reaching implications it may entail?
Yes, I agree with you that the Ethiopian media is polarized, and sensationalism in storytelling has become a pressing issue, often aligning along ethnic, religious, and political lines. However, it is important to recognize that all media outlets are products of the general public, including the journalists themselves.
Nevertheless, the rising polarization and sensationalism in Ethiopian media organizations and their outlets is concerning. It has become all too common in the country’s media landscape and can have significant impacts on various aspects of society.
One notable consequence is the erosion of public trust in media institutions. When news outlets prioritize sensationalism over factual reporting, it undermines the credibility and integrity of the media. This erosion of trust can further deepen social and political divisions within the country.
It is crucial to acknowledge the role of the country’s political structure in contributing to this situation. Ethiopia’s ethnic-based political structure can influence media practices and perpetuate polarization, making it difficult for the media to deviate from such practices.
Another critical issue worth highlighting is the sensationalizing of conflict-based stories, particularly on online media platforms. This can be attributed to a lack of ethical journalism practices or the absence of professionalism.
Regardless of the underlying cause, it is disheartening to see media organizations focusing on sensational stories that generate higher ratings or web traffic, rather than addressing important societal challenges.
So, it is imperative for media organizations and journalists to adhere to professional ethics and strive for objectivity in their reporting. By doing so, they can contribute to a more informed and balanced public discourse, facilitating the resolution of societal issues and fostering positive change.
Failure to practice ethical journalism and maintain objectivity can hinder constructive dialogue and impede progress on crucial matters such as social justice, economic development, and political reforms. Hence, it is essential for media organizations and journalists to uphold professional ethics and prioritize objectivity in their reporting.
Could you expound upon the interrelatedness and dynamic interplay among social media, freedom of expression, and social movements as explored in your upcoming book?
I am currently working on a book closely related to my PhD dissertation. In this work, I argue that freedom of expression online can greatly benefit the Ethiopian population as a whole, as well as social movements in particular, by providing a viable platform to express grievances against a dictatorial political order that has historically favored certain groups or individuals.
My argument is rooted in the belief that access to the internet is a fundamental human right, a belief that aligns with international human rights standards supporting freedom of expression through various social media platforms. Although there isn’t a specific human rights standard that explicitly addresses internet usage or online expression as a human rights issue, the right to freedom of expression is clearly stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 29 of the FDRE Constitution.
These articles affirm that everyone has the right to express themselves using any medium, including the internet. Therefore, I consider internet usage as a medium of expression in my analysis.
This is particularly significant in contexts where political space is limited, and the general public is constrained from exercising their rights and freedoms of expression. In such situations, the internet becomes an essential outlet that is free from control.
A notable instance is the 2016 Oromo protest in our country, which played a pivotal role in bringing about a political transition in 2018. This demonstrates how social media served as a catalyst for the political change we witnessed in our nation.
In what ways can the media assume a pivotal role in nurturing peace, stability, and ensuring accountability for individuals’ transgressions within a nation?
Without a doubt, the media plays a crucial role in society, not only through reporting on conflicts and devastation but also by advocating for policy changes that promote the welfare of the people and the strengthening of democracy. However, it is important to recognize that the media should not solely focus on serious issues but also cover entertaining topics that are relevant to society.
The media bears the responsibility of uncovering the truth, shedding light on past and ongoing events, and guiding future actions. Acting as a watchdog, the media monitors the actions of individuals, institutions, and the government. Through critical reporting and analysis, it scrutinizes the decisions and behaviors of those in power, fostering accountability and discouraging misconduct.
By conducting thorough investigations and reporting on matters that may otherwise remain hidden, the media uncovers injustice and contributes to holding individuals accountable for their actions. This exposure serves as a powerful tool in promoting transparency and ensuring that wrongdoings are brought to light.
So, the media’s role extends beyond reporting; it includes advocating for positive change, covering entertaining and relevant topics, uncovering the truth, and holding individuals accountable. Through these functions, the media contributes to fostering peace, stability, and a just society.
As an endeavor to find a resolution, the federal government has embraced the pursuit of Transitional Justice as a catalyst for peace and stability within the nation. How can these mechanisms effectively address human rights abuses and foster accountability? Is it even viable to implement transitional justice while conflicts still persist?
If not now, then when? This resolute perspective drives my stance on the initiative. It is crucial to take the first step towards peace and stability, and that journey has already begun. Undoubtedly, the context poses challenges, and there is a long road ahead. Nevertheless, initiating the process is of utmost importance.
Transitional justice mechanisms encompass a wide range of approaches, including truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reforms. Their objective is to address past human rights abuses and promote accountability. The establishment of truth commissions or similar bodies provides a valuable platform to uncover and document the truth about previous atrocities.
This process plays a crucial role in acknowledging the experiences of victims, countering denial or revisionism, and fostering a collective understanding of historical events. However, the presence of ongoing conflicts can hinder the necessary conditions for an effective transitional justice process. Despite these obstacles, the time to act is now. Delaying the process may perpetuate a culture of impunity and impede reconciliation.
Finally, let’s delve into the potential role of the media in the Transitional Justice Initiative, as the fourth estate holds a substantial responsibility in ensuring peace and stability within a nation. What specific role should the media play to actively contribute to the success of the initiative?
The process of Transitional Justice has now begun, with different groups being assigned to formulate the policies. In this process of policy formulation, the media should be a major stakeholder. It is essential for the media to prioritize accuracy, comprehensiveness, and balanced coverage of transitional justice processes. A key element that should be facilitated through responsible media coverage is truth-seeking.
Furthermore, the media should give voice to the victims of human rights abuses, allowing their experiences and perspectives to be heard. By sharing the narratives of these victims, the media humanizes the impact of these abuses, raises awareness about their suffering, and fosters empathy and support for their rights and reparations.
Accountability is another important aspect in which the media should actively participate during the transitional justice process. Acting as a watchdog, the media should scrutinize the actions of those involved, including government officials, legal practitioners, and other relevant actors, including media organizations.
Holding them accountable for their decisions and actions ensures transparency, fairness, and adherence to the principles of justice.
The media can facilitate public dialogue and engagement, encouraging citizens to actively participate in the process and contribute to national reconciliation efforts. This can be seen as a form of reparation. By providing analysis, interviews, and expert opinions, the media helps foster a broader understanding of the complexities and challenges faced during these difficult periods.
The final stage should focus on creating awareness among the general public to prevent such misconduct from happening again in society. The media should amplify the message of how to move forward towards a better future, emphasizing the importance of learning from past mistakes and avoiding their repetition.