Monday, May 20, 2024

Preventing weaponization of hate speech legislation

Ever since the use of social media became ubiquitous the way human beings consume information has been utterly transformed. Prior to the advent of the social media era, people communicated largely face-to-face or through hand-written letters or memoranda. Their introduction has revolutionized the way people get information, drastically reducing the influence of mainstream media as the primary source of news and opinion all over the globe. According to information compiled by DataReportal, an online reference library offering hundreds of free reports offering data, insights, and trends, there were some 5.04 billion active users of social media at the start of 2024 with the “typical” social media user now spending 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on it. Ethiopia was home to 7.05 million social media users in January 2024, equating to 5.5 percent of its total population. The tale of social media has been the proverbial two sides of a coin. Despite the range of benefits it undoubtedly has, social media has also proven to be a force for evil. 

Social media has become an integral part of daily life for many Ethiopians, offering both benefits and harmful effects that have shaped the way people interact, access information, and engage politically. One of the key benefits of social media in Ethiopia is the improved connectivity it offers. This has been particularly important for a country with a large diaspora population, allowing for easier communication and the sharing of experiences. Social media has also played a significant role in the dissemination of information and the manner business is conducted in Ethiopia. Traditional media outlets in the country are often state-controlled and lack independence, making social media a crucial alternative source of news and information. Citizens are increasingly turning to these medium to share breaking news, raise awareness about social issues, and hold authorities accountable. They have further provided a platform for activism and social movements in Ethiopia, enabling Ethiopians to organize, mobilize, and advocate for change in ways that were not previously possible.

This said social media also poses harmful effects for Ethiopian society. One notable downside is the spread of misinformation and fake news. False information can quickly go viral on social media, leading to confusion, mistrust, and even violence. In a country with ethnic tensions and political strife, the spread of misinformation has undeniably exacerbated existing divides and fueled conflict. Additionally, social media has been used as a tool for spreading hate speech and inciting violence in Ethiopia. During periods of political unrest, inflammatory rhetoric and calls for violence have circulated widely on different platforms contributing to a cycle of conflict and instability. The lack of regulation and oversight on social media has allowed harmful content to proliferate unchecked. Moreover, the rise of social media influencers and so-called “influencer culture” in Ethiopia has raised concerns about materialism, superficiality, and the impact on young people.

The downsides of the increased adoption of social media in Ethiopia were highlighted in a report issued this week by the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA). Citing findings gleaned from information covering the whole of 2023, the report accused five social media forums—Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, YouTube, and Telegram—of disseminating hate speech and false information that it said threatened the safety of individual citizens as well as national security. It noted the content of such information was often associated with political views, ethnic affiliations, religious beliefs, and gender differences, adding the purveyors of “…divisive, dehumanizing, cruel, and extreme” content were primarily opposition politicians, activists, religious leaders and social content creators. It faulted the owners of the social media platforms for not doing what was necessary to tackle the burgeoning hate speech in Ethiopia by way of their platforms. The report, however, was conspicuously silent about the role officials of the government and the ruling party inarguably played in disseminating disinformation and engaging in hate-mongering.

A number of measures can be taken to curb the spread of violence and disinformation through social media. Enforcing the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation of 2020 is one such measure. Nevertheless, the legislation, like similar laws in other countries, has the potential to be weaponized to stifle dissent and suppress freedom of expression. While hate speech laws are generally intended to protect vulnerable groups from discrimination and incitement to violence, they can also be misused by authorities to target political opponents, silence critics, and restrict the flow of information. Given Ethiopia is a nation where political tensions and ethnic divisions are prevalent, the misuse of the hate speech legislation poses a significant threat to democratic values, human rights, and civil liberties. If this specter is to be avoided, it is of the essence to ensure that the law is clear, narrowly tailored, and in line with international human rights standards; put in place robust safeguards and procedural guarantees should be put in place to ensure that the enforcement of hate speech laws is carried out in a transparent, non-discriminatory, and accountable manner; and undertake efforts aimed at promoting media freedom, pluralism, and diversity of voices in Ethiopia. This would go a long way towards assuring respect for fundamental freedoms, strengthening democratic institutions, and fostering a culture of respect, dialogue, and tolerance in the country.

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