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Limitations on freedom of expression in Ethiopia

One of the fundamental rights of man is freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is a global standard, protected under regional and international human rights instruments, treaties, and frameworks.

Freedom of expression is considered as a democratic right under Ethiopian constitution. Freedom of expression is the foundation of individual liberty and self-fulfillment. And it is vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for truth. In addition freedom of expression is essential to democracy as it supports political participation, and allows citizens to inform themselves about matters of public concern. Finally, it is seen as a check against government overreach and abuse.

In the United States, protection for freedom of expression is codified in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, part of the 1791 Bill of Rights while in Europe, freedom of expression is protected in foundational instruments from the Council of Europe, and at the European Union level. Additionally, it receives protection at the national level through freedom of expression provisions in national constitutions.

Yet, freedom of expression is not absolute and can be restricted, in limited circumstances. International, European, and US law all share this common principle of limited state interference for individual expression, constrained to specific circumstances. Historically, restrictions on speech have included that of national security, intellectual property, obscenity, crime, contempt of court, and the protection of official secrets.

European doctrine follows a similar approach to the ICCPR. Under the ECHR, interferences with freedom of expression must follow a three-step test that requires that they are (1) provided by law, (2) pursue a legitimate purpose, and (3) are necessary in a democratic society.

The United States, by contrast, operates under different doctrines. First Amendment analysis tends to take account of the type of speech as well as the type of restriction. First, it considers several narrow categories of expression as “unprotected speech,” including incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, threats, defamatory lies (libel or slander), and lying under oath.

In Ethiopia the constitution says the rights can be limited only through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honor and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity is prohibited.

There are plenty of legal provisions that are dehydrating this freedom in Ethiopia. One of these is found in the civil code. Accordingly, for example, media can publish only the truth about facts regarding defamation. Any false defamation is prohibited. In contrast to this, for instance, in US, only intentional false statements are prohibited.

There is a prohibition on hate speech and disinformation in Ethiopia.

Treatment of hate speech differs across the Atlantic. In the United States, hate speech is fully protected by the First Amendment unless it falls under an exception, most commonly true threats, incitement to violence, or defamation. Accordingly, hate speech enjoys a relatively high level of protection in the United States.

In Europe, countries differ significantly in how they approach and define the topic of hate speech, and in how they apply the above concepts. These variations generate significant inconsistencies in the law and its application across the region and even within countries. The European Court of Human Rights has followed a case-by-case approach. The Court has excluded it from the scope of freedom of expression. And many European countries have distinct laws to combat hate speech

Disinformation (also: fake news, false news, misinformation, viral deception) is not a well-developed concept in freedom of expression law or theory. As emphasized recently at the international level, freedom of expression is “not limited to ‘correct’ statements” and only in specific circumstances does disinformation map to a category of speech that can be legally restricted.

Generally speaking, a distinction has been made between the statements of opinions on the one hand (which cannot be false and may generally not be restricted) and statements of facts, which can be false and can be restricted in narrow circumstances.

False statements of fact are treated differently but have generally been accepted as a necessary part of free debate. Strict legal requirements for proving the truth of publications (e.g., by journalists) are considered in violation of freedom of expression as they would keep the media from fulfilling their societal function to inform the public.

Other limitations whose constitutionality is controversial are provided under the terrorism law, advertisement law and criminal law.

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributed by Tagel Getahun