Ethiopia’s Draft Proclamation: Comparative View on Hate Speech & Hate Crime

A taxi driver in Addis Ababa reading news on his mobile phone. (Photo: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Published: December 28th, 2019

New York (TADIAS) — As Ethiopia prepares to pass “Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation,” there has been very little meaningful public discussion regarding what exactly constitutes hate speech and hate crime.

In the short term, from the government’s perspective, the upcoming law is designed to fight the ongoing threat of misinformation — particularly on social media platforms, which often leads to deadly violence on the ground as well as destruction of property, usually on ethnocentric and religious lines. There could be no doubt that inciting violence and burning down places of business, residential houses, public buildings or sanctuaries of worship including churches and mosques, which has become a more common occurrence in Ethiopia, are pure criminal acts and not freedom of expression by any standard of the definition.

Here in the United States — another diverse country with its own issues of hate speech, racial or ethnic discrimination, and gun violence — the constitution unambiguously forbids that the government “shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech, or of the press,” yet hate crime and arson are clearly defined as illegal federal offenses resulting in stiff penalties under the national penal code including years of imprisonment.

Hate Crime

According to the American Library Association (ALA), in the U.S.:

Hate itself is not a crime. The FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate crimes, which can also encompass color, or national origin, are overt acts that can include violence against persons or property, violation of civil rights, conspiracy, or certain “true threats,” or acts of intimidation. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that either criminalize these acts or impose a harsher punishment when it can be proven that the defendant targeted the victim because of the victim’s race, ethnicity, identity, or beliefs.

Similarly, arson is against federal law as described in 18 U.S.C. § 844(i) that intentionally setting fire to both commercial and private spaces are punishable by a hefty prison term of up to 20 years behind bars. “If a violation resulted in personal injury to any person, the maximum sentence is 40 years in jail, with a minimum of 7 years.”

Hate Speech

On the other hand, “Hate speech doesn’t have a legal definition under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for rudeness, evil ideas, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn,” explains ALA. “Generally, however, hate speech is any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons.” The U.S. Supreme Court empathizes that the nation “must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Tolerance of hate speech not only protects and upholds everyone’s right to express outrageous, unorthodox or unpopular speech; it also allows society and the targets of hate speech to know about and respond to racist or hateful speech and protect against its harms.”

The Problem with Ethiopia’s Proclamation

Given that Ethiopia’s history of oppression and suppression of free speech it is understandable that international human rights organizations are expressing skepticism and concern about this recent proclamation’s unintended long-term effects. For instance, what kind of guarantees are included in the legislation to prevent politicians from weaponizing the legal loophole to target their opponents and journalists? This loophole must be addressed through the judicial system and not left up to the goodwill of any current or future leader.

According to Human Rights Watch the draft bill, which has already been approved at a cabinet level, jeopardizes Ethiopia’s newly found freedom of expression. In a press release issued on December 19th the the New York-based rights group warned that if it becomes law in its current form, “the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation could significantly curtail freedom of expression,” noting that “the use of hate speech laws around the world shows that authorities have often abused them for political purposes.”

“The government should instead adopt a comprehensive strategy to address incitement to violence, discrimination and hostility, and invoke non-punitive measures to address hate speech,” Human Rights Watch added. “This should include regular public messaging from the prime minister and other public figures about the dangers of hate speech, programs to improve digital literacy, and efforts to encourage self-regulation within and between communities.”

More importantly, Human Rights Watch cautions the following:

The draft proclamation’s definition of hate speech is not narrowly restricted to speech that is likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination or hostility, as is required under international law…Nor does the draft law set out an objective process to make this determination” adding that “the draft includes new, vaguely worded online, broadcast and print activities subject to criminal penalty. It criminalizes the “dissemination of disinformation” defined as speech that is knowingly “false,” without defining this concept. It also sets criminal penalties if speech is not “truthful.”

Given that Ethiopia is at the crossroads — in the process of easing prior restrictions on freedom of expression while grappling with increasing acts of ethnic and religion-based violence — it is critical that this draft proclamation uphold the spirit of freedom of speech while also properly defining which actions specifically constitutes as hate-crime rather than unleashing broad, sweeping measures that could be politically used to silence any unwanted opposition. Restricting hate crimes while upholding free speech is by no means an easy challenge, but it’s possible, and it begins with having an informed national dialogue.


Related:

Rights Group Calls New Law in Ethiopia a Threat to Freedom of Expression (VOA)

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