In a sharp break from a quarter century of repression, Ethiopia has embarked on a reform process that is both encouraging and fragile, and deserves international support, a UN human rights expert has found after visiting the country.
“Less than two years ago, Ethiopia’s human rights record was atrocious, repressing civil society, crushing independent media, and jailing journalists and activists,” said David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a preliminary statement at the end of his week-long mission. Kaye was the first mandate holder of the Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures system to visit Ethiopia since 2006.
Only 18 months ago Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on 10 December – initiated change by ending the state of emergency, freeing journalists and human rights defenders, opening up civil society and launching a reform process, Kaye said.
“Ethiopia has made remarkable progress towards freedom of expression,” said the expert. “However, this is only the start of a process that will take years of legal and policy commitment, and persistent dedication to public participation and human rights oversight.”
Kaye noted widespread concern that hate speech, in the broadcast, print and social media, posed a threat to the stability of the reform process. In October, 86 people were reportedly killed in unrest that many attribute, in part, to an environment of hate speech and disinformation, including on social media.
“Into this mix of reform and unrest the Government has introduced an ill-advised draft law on hate speech and disinformation that could well undermine the long-term reform process,” said the Special Rapporteur. “I am concerned that the draft ‘Hate Speech and Disinformation Proclamation’, if adopted as constructed, would threaten freedom of expression in the country and reinforce rather than ease ethnic and political tensions.”
The Special Rapporteur welcomed efforts to counter hate speech and address disinformation, and provided the Government with suggestions for how to approach the topics in a manner consistent with human rights law.
Kaye also expressed concern about the Government’s continuing use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which he urged the Government to repeal as swiftly as possible. He also condemned the fact that the Government, without clear authority, had shut down the internet at least eight times this year.
In May 2020, Ethiopia will conduct a major national election. “In sight of the coming election, I urge the Government to renew its efforts to promote and protect freedom of expression, take strong measures to combat any forms of harassment, attacks or violence against journalists, protesters and anyone exercising her right to expression, and strengthen a national dialogue and tolerance across the country,” Kaye concluded.