Ethiopia: Protect Free Speech, Tolerate Hate Speech

opinion

Years after a contested election, the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi defended before parliament the now infamous legislation designed to fight terrorism. It was a passionate advocacy of a flawed law as "flawless", and a claim that it was better than the best of any anti-terrorism law around the world.

The legislation has been less than "flawless," as envisioned by parliament and the late prime minister. It is not as if Ethiopia was not affected by domestic and cross border terrorism like its neighbours Somalia and Kenya, two countries that have suffered greatly from loss of lives, property destruction and chaos. Ethiopia may have needed a legal instrument to fight terrorism beyond the legal scope of existing laws.

But the anti-terrorism law passionately advocated by the former prime minister targeted bloggers, journalists and leaders of the political opposition who fell prey to the law. Many were indicted, charged and imprisoned for inciting terrorism, all thanks to the open-ended nature of the anti-terrorism law.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), in the first few months of being installed in power, acknowledged the harms done by the law and assembled an advisory council under the Attorney General's Office to review and revise it. The law, along with other legislation, was blamed for constraining the political space. Abiy inaugurated an era of political transformation and opened up the political and media landscape to a degree previously thought unthinkable.

Lately, there seems to be a rising rhetoric to reverse course, and that should be alarming. The Prime Minister's Office has come to re-examine the value of such an expansive and liberal take on free speech, especially as ethnic conflicts have persisted across the country.

Early this month, the Attorney General's Office issued a new bill that criminalises hate speech and submitted it for public discussion. One public forum held to discuss the bill was at the headquarters of the UNECA in Addis Abeba.

The keynote speaker was Gedeon Timotheos (PhD), deputy attorney general, who had authored an articulate and nuanced essay on hate speech. In attendance were journalists, politicians and lawyers, some of whom had been victims of the anti-terrorism law.

As Gedeon repeatedly argued, and as both the conservative majority and liberal minority in Ethiopia agree, hate speech is dangerous, because it builds on individuals' inbuilt biases and prejudices. In disregarding reason and the subtleties of group interactions, its capacity to incites social tension is immense. There are no illusions about its dangers and the role it plays in distracting from valuable policy debates.

The debate comes on the interpretation, cause and the means of enforcing the law. Those advocating the legislation argued that there should be 'boundaries" and "limits" to what people can say and what should be publicly disseminated.

But no one was able to say where those limits and boundaries lay. There is no single universally accepted definition of what hate speech is. The realization that speech is a natural extension of human thoughts and exists as the free and unconstrained part of consciousness adds to the complexity of the issue.

The bill is a typical overreach of governments and a boon to the exercise of authority anywhere, even in democratic countries. A law that is broadly interpreted gives free rein to state power, which is bound to come into a collision with those that exercise their free speech rights, whether members of the media, bloggers, opposition groups or even individuals.

The proposed bill is déjà vu to the flawed legislation of the late prime minister and sets a dangerous precedent in a country where the executive has never shied away from overexerting its constitutionally enshrined powers, and where the courts and parliament remain weak.

Worse still, anti-terrorism laws seem to have never worked anyways, unless as temporary antidotes. It merely serves to sweep discontent and tension under the rug or push open discussions into the underground where matters fester and boil. This is what happened in the modern history of Ethiopia.

Just because the political and media landscape has been liberalised, citizens and the political elite do not suddenly adopt rational discourse and a sober exchange of ideas. That is why it should not come as a surprise to anyone that much of the bias, anger and absolutist views nurtured in the underground are now emerging and spilling into the mainstream conversation.

This fact lends itself to why poor political discourses persist in Ethiopia - it is the unfortunate outcome of years of limitations imposed on free speech by the state, not the other way around.

The more practical and long-term solution to combating hate speech is to understand that hate speech is much more of a symptom rather than a problem. Political discourses in the past were moderated by a generally conservative and inward-looking public sentiment and the intolerance of successive regimes to any radical views. While the state's repressive measures were counterproductive in addressing the sociopolitical challenges it faced, it managed to create the illusion of stability.

The current political and media liberalisation measures upended these balances. In proposing a new scheme to criminalise hate speech, what this administration is calling for is a return to a period of less extreme views, not because that is what society wants, but because the state has imposed it.

Instead, what Prime Minister Abiy's administration has to do is help a democratic culture flourish in the country, which will take time to bear fruit. It is perhaps the best bet to counter hate speech, and balance it with the acknowledgement that the true measure of free speech is the right to offend.

Offending others, particularly groups, has the potential in creating social tensions. But what lies beneath this is a consequence of political exclusion and economic inequality. Governments across the world would have an easier time merely punishing groups and individuals causing societal disruption than rolling up their sleeves and toiling the back-breaking, and even thankless, task of addressing these fundamentals.

No golden bullet can contain hate speech short of building democratic institutions and lessening income inequality - two of the strongest foundations for a nation whose citizens can expect security with a reasonable degree of freedom.

People should have the freedom to shout "fire" anywhere else but in a crowded theatre. Matters that have to do with incitement of violence are sufficiently narrowly defined in the criminal code and the press proclamation. Even if this was not the case though, incitement of imminent lawless action does not justify a need for such a broadly interpretable anti-hate speech law.

If fundamental political and economic inequalities can be addressed, the state will not be the one that punishes those that spew hate and misinformation. It would be society, made up of an informed public, that rejects and pushes into obscurity misinformation and hate speech.

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