Freedom of Expression versus obligations: Striking the balance

By Abraham Tegegne and MeseretMamuye

The Ethiopian government is processing a new law on hate speech. This has drawn debates from different groups. The debates involve concerns related with the management of the problem without negatively affecting the right to freedom of expression.       

The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to human societies. People argue passionately about ideas, views and opinions, even they die for the ideas they believe in. People’s right to self-expression through various means including publishing, broadcasting, posting, etc. are essential elements of human rights.

Article 19(2) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression and it states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art through any other media of his choice”.

Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution (1995) also ensures the right to freedom of expression. People have gradually begun to exercise their freedom of speech. Yet, the exercise of liberty appears to forget that freedom is not free. Responsible journalism appears a rare professional quality. Hate speech is emerging as a threat to freedom of expression. Vile, angry, threatening, intimidating, racist and harassing words have become weapons for partisan political media.

Areas of challenge  

Hate speech becomes a crucial issue of contemporary journalism. It is considered to be the result of irresponsible use of Media. Code of conduct of the International Federation of Journalists (revised in 1986), says, “The journalist shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins”. The media initiated the 1994 Rwandan bloodshed by disseminating hate speech. As a result, nearly a million Rwandans have lost their lives.



Need for legal restriction

Germany Kent says: “Freedom of Speech doesn't justify online bullying. Words have power, be careful how you use them.” Hate speech is a growing phenomenon in Ethiopia, both in mainstream and social media. It has contributed to the aggravation of tension and conflicts among different groups across the country.

Elias Worku, Lecturer at Addis Ababa University says: “Everyone has the right to write and disseminate any information through mainstream and social media. However, freedom of expression has to be legally regulated, because one must write and disseminate opinion without harming others”.

Abera Degafa (PhD), instructor at College of Law and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University, suggests that Ethiopia can introduce a new anti-hate speech legal framework. But if the government creates conducive environment to discuss freely on political, ethnic and socio-cultural issues, he believes that the prevalence of hate speech would be minimized. He added that if there is no open discussion, people would start expressing their feelings irresponsibly, which consequently would result in the wider use of hate speech. National constitutions and international conventions allow restrictions on hate speech to safeguard societal values, rights of individuals and groups.

Article 19 (3) of the ICCPR permits limited restriction on freedom of expression. On the other hand, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), guarantee the right to freedom of expression, respectively at Article 10 Article 9 Article 13. These guarantees are largely similar to those found in the ICCPR.

However, only the ACHR specifically recommends for the banning of hate speech. Article13 (5),states: “Any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitute incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar illegal action against any person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race  color, religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offenses punishable by law”.

So when we think about freedom of speech we should think about the boundary of freedom. If we limit exercising our rights within the boundary, we can manage hate speech better.