Today, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, starts a week-long visit to Ethiopia. This marks the first visit by a UN special rapporteur to the country since 2006, as previous governments had refused to grant access.
Reforms initiated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his first months in office in 2018 aimed at ending severe restrictions on the media and free speech have slowed, and the government has occasionally resorted to old tools of repression. With elections scheduled for May 2020, it’s unclear whether the government will allow open debate on sensitive issues.
The government should take advantage of the special rapporteur’s visit to commit to ending the prosecution of journalists. While the government has said it would repeal the restrictive 2009 anti-terrorism law, authorities continue to detain journalists under the law’s provisions, because a replacement law is still under review in parliament. Journalists who previously resorted to self-censorship should feel safe to criticize government policies and actions.
The government also needs to develop a better approach to issues surrounding hate speech both online and offline. Kaye recently called on governments to “resist criminalizing such speech except in the gravest situations.” The country has over recent months faced very serious communal violence and inciting hate speech online, and the government faces pressure to respond. But Ethiopia’s primary response thus far has been to draft a hate speech law, currently before parliament, that includes a vague and overbroad provision criminalizing hate speech that threatens freedom of expression.
A comprehensive strategy should include regular public messaging from the prime minister and other public figures around the dangers of hate speech, public education campaigns, programs to improve digital literacy, and efforts to encourage self-regulation within and between communities.
Ethiopia also needs a genuinely independent judiciary to ensure victims of hate speech and violence caused by incitement have access to justice.
Hopefully, Kaye’s visit will renew engagement between the Ethiopian government and UN and African Union special procedures. The government should accept all pending requests, including by the special rapporteur on torture. Such engagement will help move human rights reforms forward, and the experts’ monitoring role will be crucial to ensuring a real break with the country’s abusive past.