The Fate of Freedom of Expressions under Censorship and Hate Speech in Ethiopia

Bisrat Woldemichael, Ethiopian journalist, author and the former Uppsala guest writer.In this text, he discusses the challenges that the freedom of expression is facing in the newly democratized Ethiopia. As hate speech is highly spreading in the country, it threatens to ”determine the fate of freedom of expression and press freedom sustainability in general”, Bisrat Woldemichael notes.

August 16 2019 Text: Bisrat Woldemichael

Ethiopia is one of the ancient states which is located in the horn of Africa. The country is the second most populous country in Africa with 105 million.[1]It has lots of challenges: poverty, other basic needs and lack of democratic institutions to protect human rights. Ensuring freedom of expressions, press freedom, free of associations, academic freedoms and the land and property rights are the basic questions for the people. In fact, the country has plenty of natural resources, but not yet secured food, safe drinking water, access to modern energy and infrastructural connectivity. According to Central statistics agency, 80% of the societies are live in a rural area with poor infrastructures.[2]The people have many questions, such as economic freedom, access to basic needs rights, the rule of law and democracy. The country rule of law and access to justice performance are poor with 118 rank in the world, which is very low even compare with the Sub-Saharan African states.[3]

The last 27 years the ruling party, EPRDF was busy to prepare the cooked data to show double-digit accelerated economic growth, good performance of rule of law, fair distributions of resources and infrastructures. But the people they knew how they were suffered a lot with distorted information and oppressive actions which have done by the government. The media, access to information and justices were under the control of the TPLF lead, EPRDF. The political space and all parliament seats under control of the tyranny regime. Consequently, the tenth of thousands, including free press journalists, opponent political organizations leaders and members, bloggers and activists were arrested, some of them forcefully fled abroad. On the contrary, for the last decade, the ruling party leaders and some members enjoyed with the darkroom and heard the voices of their eco-sounds, but blocked alternatives. Freedom of speech and press freedom considered as a ”luxury” for them, but they are the fundamental human rights and liberties for the people. 

The time is hero, one day it shows actors those who stand for against the dictators. After two months 100% of the parliament seats controlled by a single party and its affiliated groups, the voiceless people said ”enough” and started smoothly expanded massive public protest. Later on, many civilian protesters killed and tens of thousands were arrested. But in April 2018, all that darkness of horrible situations changes into the bright with the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The reason that he admitted his party past experiences of terrorist activities and boldly vowed to reform the country into democratic what the people have been demanding for their beloved country.

Thanks to the digital communications technologies and social media platforms, everybody can exercise freedom of expressions. In fact, it needs access to the internet, computer or smartphone with necessary applications and electricity to use the services. However, it can be affected by external pressure or personal motives by different actors. We have it since we were born as a human kind-freedom of expressions. Indeed, it is inherited and the fundamental human rights. Therefore, we can express our feelings of what we want either a verbal or non-verbal way. Similarly, freedom of speech is a natural law which can be exercised by the human beings at any time in everywhere. Both freedoms of expressions and freedom of speeches are the basis for all liberties, for human rights and democracy. Of course, freedom of expression is the sources of not only free thoughts or ideas but also it is the father of the creativities of technological innovations what we are using and enjoying in everyday activities of our daily life. 

The dictator regimes and some of the individuals: activists, politicians, journalists and government officials misuse freedom of expression to promoting hate speech since the 19th century. In fact, every UN member state adopted and recognised the UN (2015) declaration of the rights of freedom of speech under the article 19, which stated that, ”everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”4  The essence of the freedom of expression idea is highly connected to article 1 of the universal declaration of human rights, which stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”[4]As a UN member state, the current Ethiopian constitution has adopted and recognized this right under article 29 (1-2) of human rights[5], however, until April 2018 the ruling party was not allowing to practice this right than limit access to information.

However, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and the proclamation that established the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, the authority that regulates the media in general. These proclamations have been criticized for contravening the Constitution and the international human rights conventions that Ethiopia had ratified. The Anti- Terrorism restricted freedom of expressions, press freedom and freedom of speech under Article 14(1) which states: “To prevent and control a terrorist act the National Intelligence and Security Service may, upon getting court warrant intercept or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, internet, electronic, postal and similar communications of a person suspected of terrorism; enter into any premise in secrete to enforce the interception; or install or remove instruments enabling the interception.”[6]This proclamation promoted government and self-censorship. 

Censorship 
The rights of freedom of expressions and freedom of speeches are inseparable, but possible to practice in different ways through media; both traditional and modern, mainstream and social media. In fact, these rights have been challenging by censorship either by government, institutions, cultures, religious, social norms and self-censored either by external interventions or personal interest. Censorship is a mind killer which stands for against of freedom of expression in general. Indeed, censorship is a threat for free speech and press freedom. According to the scholars, censorship is the suppression or prohibition of any idea or thought which express any form of way of communication such as parts of books, films, news, public speeches are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.[7]In fact, it has a long history but well known since the ancient Greece philosopher Socrates how he accused by mob unjust “corrupted young people mind” , then he got verdict as a guilty and lost his life because of his political thought in 399 BC.[8]However, the ancient Athenian can be tried to censor freedom of speech, but they could not stop free thought. 

Censorship has a negative impact on freedom of expressions, press freedom and freedom of speeches, which limits the rights of access to information. On the other hand, it has the potential to mobilize the massive public movements for reactions against censorship. In addition, people have the power to create alternatives to disseminate information. It is true, the dictator leaders and individuals do not want to hear any criticism and alternative ideas than their eco-sounds of supporters' voices. 

The country has a lack of independent and democratic institutions. Since the PM Abiy Ahmed took the office some journalists attacked by polices officers, radical mob groups and officials. For example, near the capital, Addis Ababa four journalists attacked and harassed by mob groups and police officers in Oromia regional state. The things happened on March 2, 2019, Mereja Tv journalists Fasil Aregay and Photojournalist Habtamu Oda attacked by mob groups at in front of Legedadi-Legetafo town in front of the police station. Similarly, on May 25, 2019, Ahadu TV and Radio journalist Tamrat Abera and Ethio-Online media journalist Getye Yalew were arrested and harassed by Sendafa town police station in Oromia regional state. Recently, journalist Eskinder Nega has been threatened and discriminated by the PM Abiy Ahmed and his fellow officials in Oromia regional state and banned Journalist Eskinder Nega the new SENAI TV station launching press conference on June 3 and June 7, 2019, at Ethiopia and Hilton hotels respectively.[9]In Ethiopian, sometimes the internet service has been blocked by the only state-owned service provider, Ethio-Telecom, which has an impact on the limits of the information dissemination and censorship. 

In Ethiopia, particularly from May 2005 to April 2018 was a dark era for independent media, journalists, bloggers, academicians, competent politicians and other citizens had been faced with government censorship. Thanks to the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, since he took the office in April 2018, he has done remarkable actions on freedom of expression, including released all imprisoned journalists, bloggers, activists and politicians. On June 22, 2018, the Prime Minister ordered to open access to 264 blocked online and jammed satellite media.[10]All these actions are a green light for exercising the rights of freedom of expressions, press freedom and access to information. In addition, the Abiy Ahmed (PhD) administration vowed to revise such suppressive media laws, “anti-terrorism law” and “press law” and ban illegal government institutions and the ruling party leaders' interventions on freedom of expression and press freedom. 

Now it is the time to testing the journalists, bloggers, activists and politicians how to exercise this good opportunity for applying freedom of expression and press freedom in a responsible way. The reason that freedom of expression has been challenging by hate speech which spread through the mainstream and social media. Indeed, hate speech is disruptiveness of the dark shadow of a free mind. It has the potential to abuse the values of freedom of expressions and human dignity. It has lots of negative impact on social interactions, political stability and the societies moments. 

Hate speech 
Freedom of speech does not mean hate speech to use for insulting or attacking anyone. Hate speech is any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that denigrates a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race or another identity factor. Hate speech may suggest that the person or group — it is usually groups — is inferior and that they should be excluded or discriminated against on this basis including, for example, by limiting their access to resources, education, employment or political positions.[11]

The hate speech has a contribution to creating conflicts between individuals, the societies, the movement, between the states. The objectives of hate speeches are to attack, insult, marginalize or expose innocent individuals and civilian for personal egoistic interest than the public. The haters are negative thinkers those who are searching or finding the dark point from the bright sky. Once the free mind colonized by hate speech, it is difficult to manage easily because it has already corrupted the haters' fellow mind. Perhaps they could not find anything for their hate purpose, then they create a false flag for conflicts to attack the exposed target individuals or social groups. Moreover, all incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence is hate speech, not all hate speech constitutes incitement.[12]

It has contributions to social crises, conflicts, genocide, and political instability. For example between 1941 to 1945 the Germany Nazi party of Hitler's irresponsible hate speech abused his fellow leaders, soldiers and Nazi party members, the 17 million targeted people, including 6 million European Jewish were killed.12 In Rwanda, 1994, the irresponsible leaders and journalists promulgated hate speech through media, such as Kangura newspaper, the Radio Rwanda, Echo des 1000 Collines, and The station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) promoted hate speech in Rwanda.[13]In addition, some of songwriters and singers; Simon Bikindi, Nanga Abahutu and Bene Sebahinzi contributed to inflammatory fuel for such horrible genocide.[14]As a result, they created conflicts between ethnics' groups, mainly Hutu and Tutsi, then more than 800 thousand civilians killed, and 2 million people displaced within a short period of time. Similarly, hate speech affected Kenyan, Bosnia and Guatemala societies.[15]

In Ethiopia, since the 1960's revolution, hate speeches are highly grew up by irresponsible political activists, radical groups and their leaders entire the country. The haters gave negative attitudes and bad images for a specific social group, with lots of pseudo-stories to use for mobilizing their supporters for political interest. In addition, the haters gave code name for specific ethnic groups and religion followers. Their members and supporters accepted as a truth, then published and broadcasting hate speeches repeatedly. Finally, in May 1991 those political groups took the government office, but they continue their hate speech as an ordinary word until April 2018. The ruling party, EPRDF and its coalition members and affiliated groups’ constituents are not free from hate speeches. In addition to promoting hate speech to discriminating, insulting some specific social groups who are categorized by political elites and activists. Some of the opposition groups did the same thing to react to the ruling party attitude. All these imprudent political traditions have been expanded entire the country. 

The New prime minister, Abiy Ahmed boldly changed this negative attitude of state-sponsored hate speech and criminalizing targeted social groups and political organizations. This is a good opportunity for all actors those who want to exercise their democratic rights to involve in a genuine political activity. Unlikely, some of the activists and political leaders manoeuvre hate speech as a tactic for their selfishness demand. Gradually, hate speeches are dramatically increased both in mainstream and social media. As a result, many civilians, including children and women have been killed, more than 2 million people internally displaced.15 Therefore, hate speeches have a contribution to creating social conflicts, which are orchestrated by activists, and the local leaders. Of course, some of the ruling party leaders and the radical groups are committed for local displacement and ethnic cleansing.

Today, social media are very important to disseminate information, knowledge and make social life. The proper use of social media platform is important to help to exercise freedom of speech and citizen journalism. On the other hand, some people misuse the platform for insulting or harassing individuals or some social groups. Yet, hate speech promoters and sponsors are not accountable for such public damages. Hate speech is using an instrument for dictators and idealess activists to mobilise their supporters, then leads to taking immediate reactions to limit freedom of speech. In Ethiopia, hate speeches highly spreading by mainstream media and social media as well. Ethnic-based private owned and regional state media promoting hate speech against of pro-Ethiopian unity groups commonly insulting, attacking and discriminating with the words, “homeless, settlers, …”

In social media, the ruling party had experiences to organize the activists in the name of “Social media soldiers” under fake name those who were promoted hate speech, and to share distorted information for diverting and controlling social media. Similarly, some of the diaspora based ethno-nationalist activists and haters have the same experiences to react the ruling party and the other counterpart. Currently, the country is under political reform, however, both of them are continuing in the same way to create a false flag, promoting hate speech and social grievance. It has an impact on freedom of expressions and press freedom as well. Unless to manage the hate speeches, the country reform will be faced by social crises and political instability. Otherwise, the hate speech determines the fate of freedom of expression and press freedom sustainability in general.



[1]The World Bank Group (2017) Ethiopia, [Online], accessed April 25, 2019, available at https://data.worldbank.org/country/ethiopia.

[2]CSA (2017) Population projections [Online], accessed April 25, 2019.

[3]World Justice project (2019) Global rule of Law Index, 1025 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20005 USA, available at https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/WJP_RuleofLawIndex_2019_ Website_reduced.pdf.

[4]UN (2015) Universal declaration of human rights, United Nations.

[5]Federal Negarit Gazeta (1995), Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: Constitution ‘proclamation' no. 1/1995, Berehannena Selam Printing Enterprise, Addis Ababa.

[6]Federal Negarit Gazeta (2009), Anti-terrorism proclamation no.652/2009, Berhannena Selam Printing Enterprise, Addis Ababa.

[7]Sullivan M. K.(2010) Two concepts of freedom of speech, Vol. 124:143, Harvard Law Reviewvol. 32, no. 1, p. 23-41.

[8]Dorter K. (1976) Socrates on Life, Death and Suicide, Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 32, no. 1, p. 23-41.

[9]Amnesty International (2019), Ethiopia: Stop harassing Eskinder Nega for his opinions, [Online], accessed June 18, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/06/ethiopia-stop-harassing-eskinder-nega-for-his-opinions.

[10]Reporters without Border (2019) New era for Ethiopia's journalists, [Online], accessed April 20, 2019, available at https://rsf.org/en/news/new-era-ethiopias-journalists.

[11]UN (2017) Plan of action for religious leaders and actors to prevent incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes, Genocide prevention document.

[12]Flaim F.R. and Furman H. (2008) The Hitler legacy: A dilemma of hate speech hate crime in a post-holocaust world, (ed.), Trenton, New Jersey 08625, USA.

[13]Scheffler A. and  Pelley M.L.(2015) The Inherent Dangerof Hate Speech Legislation: A Case Study from Rwanda and Kenya on the Failure of a Preventative Measure, fesmedia Africa, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Namibia.

[14]United States Holocaust museum memorial (None), Hate speech and group-targeted violence, the role of speech in violent conflicts, Washington DC, USA, [Online], accessed April 24, 2019, available at http://www.genocidewatch.org/images/OutsideResearch_Hate_Speech_and_Grou…

[15]Human rights watch (2019) World Report, Ethiopia reports: events of 2018, [Online], accessed April 25, 2019, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/ethiopia.