(Tesfai Hailu)

“Hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it incites violence or prejudicial action … attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation.”

“Incitement means encouraging or persuading another to commit an offense by way of communication, for example by employing broadcast, publications, drawings, images, or speeches. It is “public” under international law if it is communicated to a number of individuals in a public place or to members of a population at large by such means as the mass media.”

The aforementioned characteristics of hate speech and incitement to commit an offense have become so common in Ethiopia that their criminality is often overlooked. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that hate speech has become the new normal not only in the political arena, but also even in social discourse.

To that end, it is an open secret that the recent rampant hate speech and call for violence particularly targets persons of Tigray origin from at least three corners of hate:

1) The first consists of people with deep-rooted and undying hatred for Tegaru/Tigrayans and anything from Tigray. Afflicted and affected by their family and social upbringing or negative experience they may have had, such people have become so hateful that they will never be content unless they ultimately see the demise of Tigrayans.

2) In the second are those who perceive Tegaru as a privileged class, hence are angry that they are not getting a piece of the pie. They paradoxically see hundreds of beggars and broom sellers day-in-day-out in their neighborhoods, workplaces and recreation areas, but their “irrational attitude of hostility” has subjected them to paranoia – bordering on schizophrenia – that they see poverty stricken Tigrayans on the streets of Addis as persons on a covert mission to keep an eye on them.

3) The third comprises of those who ironically see themselves as political activists, freedom fighters, people’s advocates, and Ethiopia’s last hope. This particular group’s grudge is Tigrayans’ alleged 100% support for TPLF – as active card-carrying members or as passive bystanders who do not wish to pull their weight in the “struggle” to topple the government. In effect, they subscribe to the “you’re with us or against us” rule, and essentially label anyone who is not with them as the enemy other.

Whatever their underlying motive maybe, what these three groups of people have in common is that they are hell-bent to demonize Tigrayans; create animosity between them and their fellow Ethiopians, and thereby mobilize hate and violence against the people of Tigray. And many are doing it not under pseudonyms, but rather using their real names; not just from the “toxic diaspora” safe haven, but from within the country.

Image - A keyboard depicting hate speech
Image – A keyboard depicting hate speech

Now the question is, how did we get to this?

In a time when xenophobia is denounced as a social plague all over the world, at least in theory, what made us stoop so low as to openly and proudly carry a bigotry ID card and display a banner of hate? After all, hate has been around for millennia, but it is only recently that it has come to the open in a scale of this magnitude and in such an ugly manner.

In my view, there are at least four culprits in this:

1. The economic determinist view that perceives development as the solution to all political and socioeconomic problems. Of course, road and building construction; farm modernization; industrial development as well as advancement in education, health, and technology are vitally important. However, it would be naïve to assume that all social ills will be cured with economic development. Thus, the “let the dogs bark, while we march on the road to development” attitude was unwise and utterly irresponsible.

2. Government has become too lenient, if not negligent, when it comes to tackling hate speech, and sluggish in bringing offenders to justice. And this could be due to the fact that:

a) An arrest / prosecution fatigue, especially after the constant condemnation by Western “human rights” groups and governments over the arrest of “journalists” and “activists”.

b) The potential impact of hate speech is underestimated by policy and decision makers. It is not uncommon, for instance, to hear the ruling party’s diehard supporters claim that hatemongers cannot change a thing, which was very naïve to say the least.

c) There might be indifference to, perhaps even a delight in, the growing hate speech and call for violence against Tigrayans by some public officials, especially in regional governments, who are giving a blind eye and a deaf ear to the clear and present danger.

3. (Related to no. 2) Hatemongers feel safe and secure, in fact, empowered, hence continue to push the envelope, and test the water to see how far they can go with their message of hate and call for violence. Likewise, seeing nothing happening to the veterans of hate, rookie hatemongers are coming out of the woods and mushrooming in our very eyes.

4. While hate-mongers are relatively well organized and communicate with one another – with “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mindset, the anti-hate camp is appallingly disorganized and disconnected.

So, what is to be done?

What should be done before this growing hate gets a stronghold, and destroys the lives of individuals, families, communities and the country as witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and as the preview is already at play in some parts of Ethiopia?

1) Governments are not just expected to fight hate and incitement to violence, but are duty-bound to do so. To that effect, the Ethiopian government ought to introduce a special anti-hate and incitement bill with a special prosecutor’s office assigned to swiftly bring perpetrators to justice, have them punished for their crime, and make them serve as a deterrent.

If there is the belief that there are adequate laws in place for this very purpose, let the public see it at work. Otherwise, the tired mantra that “የአፈፃፀም እንጂ የፖሊሲ ችግር የለብንም” (“we got deficiency in execution not in policy”) does not work here above all.

2) Play an active role by sending a clear message to hatemongers that there is a new sheriff in town and that their behavior is not going to be tolerated any longer. Not just hatemongers but also those that provide the medium for their message – be it from within or outside the country – should be warned, and penalized. Let’s face it, if millions of people had to be inconvenienced as a result of grade 12 exam theft, there is no reason why a similar measure cannot be taken against any social media that provides access to hate and incitement to violence. After all, as it is said, hate speech is not freedom of speech.

3) As supposed to getting in a meaningless tit-for-tat with words and sentences, anti-hatemongers need to get organized to tackle hate and incitement to violence, particularly in social media. To that end, as most of the major social media sites have a clear policy on hate speech, those who break the law can be reported in an organized and effective manner so that they get the “Access Denied!” message loud and clear, or at the very least, find it an uphill battle for them to spread their message of hate.


Guest Author

more recommended stories