It is recent news that Ethiopia has passed a law that punishes “hate speech” and “disinformation” with fines and imprisonment. It is argued that the law goes against the basic human right of free speech. On the other hand, the law is necessary to prevent atrocities that follow “hate speeches” and “disinformation”. For me, the consequences of allowing free speech and freedom of expression really depend on the country we are dealing with. The level of emotional intelligence and levels of rationality that characterizes a country’s population does really affect how one processes “hate speech” and “disinformation”.
In the hope of liberalizing the media, and stimulating open political debates, the Prime Minister has allowed media that were previously censored before his advent to power. I personally find such move commendable. Nevertheless, the consequences are not as one would have wanted it them to be. We all remember the number of times the internet, and Facebook in particular, has been shut down in the hope of curtailing any communications that are feared of creating tensions in the country. It is recent memory that not much has been achieved on that end. The only thing that shutting down the internet did was to put some more fuel in the fire and induce people to further nurture the feelings of anger and hate.
The second move is to liberalize the media by at the same time making sure that there is a law that punishes “hate speech”. For me, the practicability of implementing this law really bothers me. One of the key question that bother me related to this law is ‘how does one determine what is considered as hate speech?’. In any communication that takes place between two or more individuals, it is not only the words that transmit information but also the tone of voice or language that is being used. I can transmit the same information by using two sentences that are completely different words and in tone. And two different individuals may understand a single phrase or statement differently. Misunderstanding or misinterpretation may lead to one being faulty accused as having made a “hate speech”. I expect a lot of subjectivity to come into play in implementing the law!
The other thing that bothers me with this law is the fact that there are so many platforms through which “hate speeches” or “disinformation” can be transmitted. The internet is a big jungle. Even without the internet, one can simply use phones, and the old fashioned physical meeting among a group of individuals without involving the media. Back in my childhood, there was no internet. But political messages never failed to be communicated in the country. People will do it anyway. So, how does one have control over all these platforms? I can’t imagine the resource it takes to track them all down.
And besides, how does one check the truthfulness of the information transmitted over the media? We are in a country that is having trouble to have a common understanding and agreement about our own history. The truth is really becoming relative. Checking the correctness of all the information in media must need a hell lot of budget from our government!
The way I see it, the main reason for enacting this law is to prevent all the ethnic tensions we are increasingly witnessing. In my opinion, both allowing freedom of expression as well as controlling it are not preventing the tensions. Maybe the solution has nothing to do with allowing or restricting freedom of expression. Maybe, in the context of this country, the only thing to do is to assure the rule of law, strengthen the security situation, punishing perpetrators of the tensions (surely, these must be known to the government) and making sure that such punishments are transparent to the public!