Human Rights Watch Warns Against Ethiopia’s Hate Speech Law

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined the list of experts cautioning the Ethiopian government’s move to criminalize hate speech. Despite offering encouragement for the leadership’s willingness to tackle this issue, the HRW has warned that “laws criminalizing hate speech have been often and easily abused,” and suggested that alternative methods should be a priority.

Since April, the opening of political and democratic space has enabled increased exercise of freedom of expression in Ethiopia with reduced fear of arrest. However, a lack of official platforms for Ethiopians to have their grievances addressed has seen the nation’s limited cyberspace flooded with both hate speech and fake news in recent months. The Attorney General’s office has attributed accelerations in rising ethnic tensions – and the resulting deadly incidents – across Ethiopia to such speech, placing a particular emphasis on the role of social media. In an interview with the privately-owned Addis Standard, the Attorney General’s head of communications, Zinabu Tunu, reported that “There are growing concerns about hate speeches and uncensored activism in the country. The need to have a legal ground in bringing upon accountability towards these is not to be left for time.”

While tackling hate speech is certainly an important task for Ethiopian authorities to address, several experts have come forward to caution against the use of a hate speech law. Seyoum Teshome, an activist and lecturer at Ambo University, warns that “censoring posts on social media and bringing accountability will hardly be successful, and it is yet another law to restrict the freedom of speech and right to criticize Abiy’s administration.”

HRW has now added their own cautions, maintaining that “any law that limits freedom of expression by punishing hate speech must be narrowly drawn and enforced with restraint… many governments have tried and failed to strike the right balance, and Ethiopia’s own track record offers reason for alarm.” This ‘track record’ is a reference to the Ethiopian leadership’s use of vague legal definitions within anti-terrorism laws as grounds for restricting ‘peaceful expressions of dissent.’ While this anti-terrorism law is being reviewed by the Abiy Ahmed-led government as part of the nation-wide attempts to continue opening political space in Ethiopia, HRW highlights that this new hate speech law may hinder progress towards such democratic space.

HRW’s Felix Horne makes clear that, while hate speech in Ethiopia needs to be addressed, criminalization will not effectively tackle the issues which are leading to the upsurge in such speech or ethnic tensions. “What Ethiopia needs is a comprehensive new strategy – one that even a carefully drawn hate speech law should only be one small part of.” The country has alternative solutions to pursue, argues Horne, which should be prioritized over restricting freedom of expression. These alternatives range from public education campaigns and public figure denouncement of hate speech, to supporting social media companies in self-policing their platforms and regulating when discourse on their platforms could lead to violence. Beyond social media itself, more space should be developed in which Ethiopians can express their grievances and discuss critical issues with legitimized representation. If Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed-led government truly wishes to open political and democratic space for its citizens, it must facilitate – not criminalize – peaceful freedom of speech.

Fiona McLoughlin