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Speech vis-à-vis ethnic politics

Speech vis-à-vis ethnic politics

Truly an Ethiopian Conundrum

Having its roots in the early days of the Ethiopian student movement, ethnic politics have been the dominant form of political mobilization in the country for close to a quarter of a century, now. Whether it is elite driven or evolved naturally as a response to the oppressive feudal system of the day, there is little consensus to this day. One thing that is for sure is that the guarantee afforded to it by the 1995 FDRE constitution, which established an ethnic federalist state in Ethiopia, was indeed a big boost to the proliferation of ethnic-based political activism.

Another important step in this evolution is the recent reform being undertaken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and his allies since April 2018. The newly found opening up of the political space led to another explosion of ethnic parties in Ethiopia.

By the account of National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEEB), some 107 political parties are registered to be legal political advocacy groups preparing to stand for election in the upcoming national ballot. The fact of the matter is that out of these 107 political parties, currently registered by the Board, the overwhelming majority are reliant on ethnic mobilization in one way or the other.

“So what?” one might ask. Well, with this number of political parties and so close to a national election, widespread political mobilization, campaign rallies, public meetings and political speeches are inevitable. Yet again, with political dialogue largely rooted in ethnicity, it also unavoidable that some of these political speeches are going to be controversial, if not downright offensive and hate mongering.

In fact, this is not only theoretical. A simple review of the political dialogue on some of the social media platforms frequented by Ethiopians would reveal the extent of this problem. To the most part, political activism, in some of the social media platforms like Facebook, is largely employing hate speech and disinformation as a primary tool. This much is confirmed by David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on his recent report to the global body about the reform process in Ethiopia. Having visited Ethiopia from December 2-9, 2019, Kaye explicitly stated in his report that “the reform process may be at risk from the near-term threat of ethnic politics and the emergence—or at the very least the perceived emergence—of hatred and disinformation as tools of politics”.

However, days after the new administration ascended to power, the threat of hate speech and disinformation has already started to manifest in social media dialogues happening among Ethiopians. Pundits and the public alike were unanimous in expressing fears of such developments; and the trends has only gotten bolder over the course of the two years, in some extents leading to open ethnically charged conflicts and atrocities.

The approach followed by the PM and his team was that of wait and see. He frequently attributed the conflicts to over-excitement due to the newly found freedom of expression and the lifting of the overall oppressive system of governance. Sadly, even the PM was eventually, rudely awakened to what was happening in his country; realizing that Ethiopia’s new wave of political operators are bent on using any tool available at their disposal including hate speech and disinformation. The latter, in fact, was reported to be done in an organized manner with the deployment of social media armies carefully steering the conversation to the direction they wanted.

Though late, the government, gradually, came to the understanding that something has to be done to curb the destructive development. That was when PM Abiy realized the importance of having a legal regime to control and suppress the emergence of hate speech and disinformation. That realization gave rise to the drafting of one of the hastily ratified proclamations since the coming to power of the reform group.

It is called the “Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation,” and it has since been ratified by the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) and ready to enter the scene. Now a number of experts and human right activists have posed their concerns to the drafting body mostly focusing on the heavy toll it would take on the freedom of expression and opinion. Granted much of these concerned bodies are worried about the fragile state of the freedom afforded to the public and the media alike in the arena of freedom of speech and expression. And, most people viewed the proclamation as a curtailing mechanism to these freedoms, before they were fully exercised by the public.

Again none of these commentators dared to deny the threats posed by hate speech and disinformation to the ongoing democratic reform process. Across the spectrum, more radical liberal idealists called for the complete avoidance of a hate speech proclamation in Ethiopia since it is a threat as suitable tool to governments to jail their opposition. As others argued for a very narrowly defined hate speech, with special consideration to freedom of expression as applied to social and mainstream media platforms.

The proclamation defines hate speech as: “Speech that promotes hatred, discrimination or attack against a person or an identifiable group based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or disability”.  In nutshell, there are a number of experts and media practitioners that finds this definition of hate speech to be too broad and open to interpretation.

Apparently, the media, civil society and political activities have been burned once with the enactment of such proclamation in the form of the Anti-Terror Proclamation (ATP), which was reviewed and amended by the HPR a while back. Nevertheless, the damage that the ATP has inflicted up on the media and political activists is not something that seems to be going away anytime sooner. And hence, the response to this piece of legislation was largely negative and combative.

Regardless, the proclamation has made it through the other end and now a law. It suffices to say that the proclamation already has an image problem. However, a more pressing concern for some experts at this stage is the impact this proclamation would have on the existing political upheavals of the nation. The Ethiopian political environment, today, is a very ethnically charged battlefield making use of new advancements in ICT to spread messages, rally supporters or just share information. With the new medium the message appears to be changing as well to more radical one, at times boarding or resembling hate speech, as defined by the new proclamation.

Befekadu Hailu, well-known political blogger as member of the Zone 9 collective and currently cofounder of CARD, center for advancement of rights and democracy, agrees that in an environment of heightened ethnic political exchange, enforcing anti-hate speech law would require the navigation of a fine line that exists between political advocacy and hate speech. We have always known that with ethnic-based political groups it is always a risk to not veer to hate speech territory.

Recent issues on the ground support Befekadu’s assertions to large extent as some of political speeches employed by some ethnic-based parties are being questioned for their role as promoting hate and spreading disinformation. Needless to say, the sources of such speeches are equally adamant about the truthfulness of their speeches and statements and the fact that it is all within their right to make speeches like that as a legitimate, robust political activism work.  

“In a country whose organizational structure centers on ethnic identity, hate speech is [unmistakably] the symptom and function of the politics,” Kaye argues in his 10-page report to the UN. In fact, hate speech is a widely-condemned problem in Ethiopia, today, Kaye confirms, adding that, but it is also with high potential to be used as tool to rally one’s supporters. Sadly, social media views, shares and retweets speak of this truth as well. Speeches and views with more radical contentions are actually the ones getting more attentions; in fact, the closer it is to pure hatred or outright conspiracy and falsehood the better it is in terms of attracting audiences.

On the flip side, initial attempts to enforce this proclamation by some government agencies seem to have yielded the expected outcomes: which is immediate accusation of ethnic bias and selective enforcement. Wondemagegn Tadesse, lecturer at the Addis Ababa University, College of Law, says the fact that selective prosecution has been the norm rather than the exception in Ethiopia has eroded the credibility of government’s enforcement agencies in the face of such new proclamations.

He, for example, cites the fact that the Ethiopia criminal code already had the necessary provision with regard to hate speech. “It was there the whole time and nobody has paid attention to it, so far,” Wondemagegn argued. Furthermore, he questions the need to have such proclamation in a county like Ethiopia where the effectiveness of a piece of legislation as deterrent to the crime is extremely law. “In many nations, enacting the law would prevent nearly 90 percent of the crimes before they even happen; this is oddly not the case in Ethiopia,”

Furthermore, Wondemagegn is also unconvinced with the government’s plan to regulate hate speech in the digital platform. “It is rather ambitious for me seeing new technology innovations are challenging for us as a country,” he opines. 

On the other hand, Wondemagegn is also quite worried about the level of conversation that Ethiopians are having on social media these days. “I think we might have invented some new forms of fallacies by now,” he told The Reporter, jokingly. And argues that, there must be grassroots mobilization by both civil society and non-governmental actors to raise awareness and educate the public to enable it to filter such information floating in the social media.

In fact, he is of the opinion that there is the need to have a consensus among the political elites and the society that we are facing danger emanating from hate speech. According to Sehin Teferra, a PhD in Gender studies and co-founder of Setaweet Movement, a contemporary feminist movement dedicated to the empowerment women and men alike, one aspect of hate speech which Ethiopians has not even begun to discuss is the issue of bad stereotypes.

“In Ethiopia we have a number of stereotypes casually uttered among different societies without consideration to its impact,” she explained to The Reporter in short phone interview. In essence, it is very difficult to pinpoint how and when stereotypes were started, except the fact that they are one-sided and unchallenged stories which gathers strength across time, she explains. Just as the case with gender stereotypes, the only way to rectify them is by challenging them factually and explaining the adverse impact they would bring up on the society.

Agreeing that ethnic stereotypes are getting out of hand in Ethiopia, in recent times, Befekadu thinks, ultimately eliminating prejudices is a difficult and to the most part, unattainable task. “There would always be prejudice in the world and the only solution is tackling the existing ones via education starting at the family level,” he says.

At end of the day, since the hate speech proclamation is already a law, the only thing that remains to be done is for government to take very cautious and measured steps while enforcing, Wondemagegn says in conclusion. “They have to test it very slowly and take a very balanced approach not to reinforce expectations and some of the accusations leveled against them, already,” he added.    

Apparently, sources close to the Office of the Attorney General claims that the government is fully aware of the delicate balance that exists with ethnic politics and hate speech, and that is why all relevant implementation agencies like prosecutors, members of the police, and others would be expected to undergo intensive training sessions before they begin enforcing the law. On the other hand, he explains, checks and balances with regard to freedom of expression is also a very important aspect of the enforcement process to which Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Ethiopian Broadcast Authority would be tasked to oversee.