Ethiopia’s Drafted Legislation Against Hate Speech Threatens Journalistic Freedoms

Over the past year the government of Ethiopia, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has produced progressive reforms to increase journalistic freedoms and freedom of expression. Such freedoms have been frequently and harshly repressed by previous governments. However, with these freedoms inevitably arise complications, namely a rising culture of disinformation and hate speech both on social media and, disturbingly, within newly created media platforms. In response, the Abiy government has commenced the drafting of legislation with the aim to prohibit the dissemination of disinformation and hate speech. There are concerns amongst local journalists and international organizations that the bill will be used to revert back to a repression of journalistic freedoms in Ethiopia.

In the New York Times, Press Secretary for Abiy’s government, Billene Seyoum, has stressed that the bill is aimed at reducing hate speech and disinformation, not curbing freedom of expression. She has argued that, “This law really won’t curb citizens’ freedom of expression but it rather will safeguard their right to access accurate information and ensure their safety”, following on to proclaim that, “disinformation is lethal. It also creates fear and divides societies and communities.”

Despite reassurances from the Abiy government, Human Rights Watch’s Felix Horne is skeptical, arguing that “…around the world, laws criminalizing hate speech have been often and easily abused – and there are other options.” Horne suggests, as an alternative, that greater efforts must be undertaken to educate civilians in digital literacy, alongside an ethically-guided practice of self-regulation within and between ethnic communities.

The fundamental aims of the proposed legislation are attempting to address a pernicious issue in Ethiopia, as the rise of disinformation and hate speech has intensified tensions between ethnic groups, occasionally boiling over into violent clashes between the groups. However, no matter how precise the legislation is in the targeting of divisive and misinformed ‘media’, it must be acknowledged that such a law grants the Ethiopian government enormous power over journalism. If used inappropriately, such legislation could halt or even reverse the progress Abiy’s government has achieved towards democratization. As Horne highlights, such a bill must be used sparingly, supported by an educational programme used to effectively address such tensions.

What is paramount to the outcome of this legislation is maintaining the security and wellbeing of Ethiopian citizens, who are potentially endangered whenever someone with ready access to the media on any platform can make hostile or unfounded claims regarding social issues. Such claims can intensify tensions in a country struggling with a history of ethnic grievances. According to the Washington Post, in several instances – such as the Ethiopis publication – media platforms have been promoting divisive stances toward several issues, further escalating tensions. As such, the drafted legislation can potentially de-escalate or pre-empt the rise of such tensions, thus ensuring greater safety for the Ethiopian people. However, as freedom of the media and expression are not enshrined in Ethiopian law, as highlighted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is the potential risk that the legislation may lead to increased persecution of reporters.

Journalism is essential to the democratization of Ethiopia. While the aims of the Abiy government are necessary, a bill criminalizing hate speech may potentially  exacerbate tensions and unravel any progress Ethiopia has made toward freedom of expression and journalistic liberty. Given the power over journalism that the drafted bill gives to the Ethiopian government, it must be critically examined, sparingly used, and used alongside professional journalism and education programs.