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Hate speech: the Achilles heel of Ethiopia

Hate speech: the Achilles heel of Ethiopia

The recent events that have been taking place in Ethiopia shine a bright light on hate speech. The role of hate speech has, for some time, been hugely ignored in its contribution to the recent ethnic clashes that took place in different parts of the country. Many fear that if not properly dealt with, Ethiopia can end up following the footsteps of Rwanda and Myanmar.

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), has admitted on many occasions that tribalism/ethnic clashes are becoming serious issues in the country but that is not the only problem. In the wake of recent events, the Ethiopian government has currently drafted a proclamation regarding hate speech and disinformation. On April 6, the Office of the Attorney General released a draft of a piece of criminal legislation aimed at tackling the increasing problem of hate speech and disinformation in the country. Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation is aimed at controlling and suppressing the dissemination and proliferation of hate speech, disinformation and other related false and misleading information.

“My proposition to combat disinformation and hate speech is a little different from legal resolutions. In fact, I believe there are a lot of provisions that regulate speech in Ethiopia's criminal code including 'incitement', 'defamation' and 'blasphemy,” Befkadu Hailu, Director of CARD (Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy), who is also hosting a consultative meeting focusing on the new media law, told The Reporter.

Befkadu continues to explain that the draft is trying to regulate the same problem in a different legal framework but misses the whole point. He strongly believes that combatting disinformation and hate speech can be more successful through media literacy programs and more government transparency. Otherwise, in the age of social media, regulators cannot catch anonymously organized people who work on disinformation and hate speech dissemination. Befkadu mentions his concern saying that instead of these responsible bodies, the legal framework may end up targeting random individuals and creating a chilling effect against those who express themselves freely and make innocent mistakes.

In addition, the draft law has no means of holding social media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) accountable. The best it promises is to release a report against them. It is difficult to hold organized anti disinformation and hate speech campaign without holding these platforms accountable.

Furthermore, for Befkadu, punishment is very high. The draft states that the punishment is three years or a fine not exceeding 100,000 birr.

“The penalty should be down to one year imprisonment and a maximum of 10,000 birr fine. The government has a tendency of blaming hate speech for everything happening in Ethiopia and the disinformation and hate speech campaigns are syndromes of the problem in the ground,” he told The Reporter.

Befkadu warns that this draft can backfire. “The judiciary and security apparatus in Ethiopia are less trusted. If they jail anyone with the excuse of hate speech and disinformation, chances are high that many people start to believe what the detained people have said is the right thing to be said. Also, jailing some people may cause more violence than what their speech can cause. It is wise to do aggressive media literacy programs hand in hand with civil societies, nurturing culture of fact-checking, appreciating government and others transparency. These are lasting solutions while the rest creates antagonism to an already antagonized political environment,” he told The Reporter.

Hate speech is not new to societies. It has existed long before; however, with the internet era, hate speech is taking a new spin in societies. Social media has become a platform where people express their opinions freely. Yet, the dark side of the web is that it is also manifesting hate speech and radicalism. Many countries struggle to keep hate speech under control. Some countries have chosen to create a law against it while others have not. For instance, in the US hate speech is not regulated unlike other liberal countries because hate speech is a legally protected free speech under the First Amendment. Contrary to the US, Germany has a law against hate speech called “Volksverhetzung” – the concept under Germen criminal law refers to incitement of hatred against segments of the population and refers for violent  or arbitrary measures against them, including assaults against the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population. As well as the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Network Enforcement Act) is used to police social media networks in order to control fake news and hate speech discourse, possibly making it more effective than other laws.

The new hate speech and disinformation proclamation in Ethiopia could threaten freedom of expression, according to the United Nations. UN reported that Ethiopia has, over recent months, faced very serious communal violence and inciting hate speech online, and the government faces pressure to respond. Ethiopia’s primary response thus far has been to draft a hate speech law, currently before parliament, that includes a vague and overbroad provision criminalizing hate speech that threatens freedom of expression. David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, asked authorities to reconsider a draft hate speech law that he said would worsen already high ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence during a news conference in Addis Ababa. Kaye’s visit was the first to Ethiopia by a UN free speech expert in 10 years. In Kaye’s report to the OHCHR, he outlines his concern that the draft proclamation will exacerbate ethnic tension, which in turn may fuel violence further. Some of the problems with the proclamation are the broad definitions of some terms.

Laetita Bader, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), states that laws criminalizing hate speech have rarely achieved their stated purpose and they have often been abused. She told The Reporter that the current draft hate speech and disinformation prevention and suppression proclamation, which has been tabled before parliament, includes a broad and vague definition of hate speech. The current definition does not target speech that is likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination or hostility, key requirements under international law. Such a broad definition risks to restrict free speech and make it easy to abuse.

Bader highlights one of the positive aspects of the draft which includes provisions calling on the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to conduct awareness-raising activities and media literacy campaigns. Independent media outlets, universities, civil society organizations, political parties and others should also seek to provide Ethiopians with new platforms and opportunities to express their grievances and discuss critical issues, beyond social media.

Facebook has repeatedly been weaponized to incite genocide and ethnic clashes as can be seen in the case of Myanmar. Facebook has admitted that it was too slow to tackle hate speech in Myanmar that fueled hate; however, is it making the same mistake in Ethiopia is a question many people have. Social media has been identified as one of the main venues which users have incited ethically tinged violence leading to deaths and displacements.

This is not the struggle of Ethiopia alone, but many African countries. African countries are one of the most diverse with several ethnic groups. With over 80 different ethnic groups, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic and a very diverse society. The challenge to democracy in Africa is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of identity politics that promote narrow tribal interests. Tribalism is a common phenomenon in many African countries. It can be seen for instance in the 1900s in the Rwandan Genocide. And other many shocking events that do not reach the outside world. In the past three years, the reform led by Prime Minister Abiy has seen a lot of resistance and protests. Some of those protest have resulted in deaths of scores of people due to ethnic clashes caused by hate speech. The dangers of tribalism have been seen in the last 20 years in Somalia and Rwanda and in Kenya's 2007-08 post elections violence. Countries have reached to the brink of civil war because of tribalism and ethnic clashes. For some, as the BBC has outlined, tribal politics is a zero-sum game, making it more prone to using hate speech and inciting violence.

Contributed by Sesina Hailou