The Hidden Struggle for Expression in Ethiopia

In an era where the internet has become the new battleground for human rights, Ethiopia stands as a compelling case study for the complexities surrounding freedom of expression online.

Ethiopia's digital landscape tells a tale of connectivity and constraint, where chains of regulation challenge the spirit of online expression. Image by Politics and Rights Review.

The internet has fundamentally transformed the way we communicate, socialize, and even mobilize for social change. It’s a platform that offers unparalleled opportunities for freedom of expression. In Africa, the internet has sparked political revolutions, overthrowing dictatorships in Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia.. Social media platforms have become the modern-day public squares where citizens can voice their opinions, share information, and organize movements.

However, this newfound digital freedom is not without its challenges. While the internet has democratized access to information, it has also become a tool for state control and surveillance. In Ethiopia, the government uses tactics like internet shutdowns during sensitive times to regulate online speech. Repressive laws criminalize certain speech, and outright censorship of digital platforms exists. These actions pose a significant threat to freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on public discourse.

The situation in Ethiopia serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges facing digital freedom of expression in Africa. The internet is a double-edged sword; it empowers citizens but also gives governments tools to restrict freedom. Striking a balance between these aspects is crucial for the future of digital rights in Ethiopia and Africa.

The African Charter and Digital Rights: Bridging the Gap

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is the cornerstone for human rights in Africa, including freedom of expression. Initially, the Charter was more focused on traditional forms of media—print, radio, and television. However, the digital age has necessitated an evolution in how we interpret these foundational texts. The 2002 African Declaration emphasized free speech as a cornerstone of democracy, marking a significant step. Yet, it fell short of addressing the burgeoning digital landscape.

A significant gap between policy and practice exists, highlighting the need to bridge it for Africa’s digital freedom.

Fast forward to 2019, and we see a revised version of the Declaration that finally extends the scope of protection to online media. This is a monumental shift, acknowledging the internet as a legitimate medium for the exercise of free speech. It also acknowledges digital age challenges like hate speech, disinformation, and the need for data protection.

However, the updated Declaration is not without its limitations. The document extends digital freedom of expression but includes ‘claw-back clauses’. These vague clauses allow states to limit freedoms, creating potential for abuse.

The challenge now lies in the implementation. Political will is essential for these updated principles to move from paper to practice. Pansy Tlakula, former Special Rapporteur, noted the lack of political will as a major barrier. A significant gap between policy and practice exists, highlighting the need to bridge it for Africa’s digital freedom.

The Normative Content of Digital Freedom: Beyond Traditional Media

When it comes to interpreting the right to “express and disseminate opinions,” the African Charter is not explicit about the mediums through which this right can be exercised. Traditional interpretations have limited this to print, radio, and television. However, such a narrow view is increasingly untenable in a world where digital platforms have become the primary spaces for public discourse.

The African Charter, like any human rights instrument, should be seen as a living document. It must adapt to the realities of the day, including technological advancements. This “evolutive method of interpretation” suggests that the Charter should encompass modern mediums like the internet. After all, the ultimate aim of the Charter is to make human rights practical and effective. Limiting the scope of freedom of expression to traditional media would undermine this objective.

The government has often invoked national security as a justification for restricting digital freedoms.

Moreover, the Charter aims to promote the ideals and values of a democratic society. In this context, freedom of expression on the internet becomes not just a right but a necessity. It enables individuals to engage in meaningful discourse, challenge power structures, and contribute to the shaping of public opinion.

However, this broader interpretation comes with its own set of challenges, notably the so-called ‘claw-back clauses.’ These clauses allow states to impose restrictions on freedoms, often under the guise of national security or public order. While some limitations may be necessary, they must be clearly defined, proportionate, and in line with international human rights standards to prevent abuse.

The normative content of digital freedom is still evolving, and as it does, it must strike a balance between individual liberties and state interests, always with an eye towards fostering a more democratic and inclusive society.

The Limits of State Regulation: A Fine Line Between Control and Freedom

State regulation of the internet is a contentious issue, often framed as a battle between safeguarding national interests and preserving individual freedoms. While the African Charter and its subsequent Declarations provide for state-imposed limitations, these are not without their controversies. The key question is: When do these limitations cross the line from being protective measures to instruments of state control?

In Ethiopia, the government has often invoked national security as a justification for restricting digital freedoms. These restrictions range from internet shutdowns during times of political unrest to the enactment of laws that criminalize certain forms of online speech. While the state argues that such measures are necessary to maintain public order and national security, they often serve as convenient tools for stifling dissent and quashing opposition.

As digital platforms continue to evolve, so too must the laws and regulations that govern them.

It’s crucial to understand that national security should not be used as a blanket term to suppress freedom of expression. The African Charter itself stipulates that any limitations imposed must be justifiable and compatible with international human rights standards. National security cannot be invoked to protect a government from embarrassment, to conceal wrongdoing, or to suppress industrial unrest. Such misuse undermines the very essence of a democratic society, which thrives on transparency, accountability, and the free flow of information.

Therefore, any state-imposed limitations on digital freedom must be scrutinized rigorously. They should be specific, proportionate, and necessary for the purpose they serve. Vague and overbroad regulations open the door for abuse, leading to a chilling effect on free speech and, by extension, on democracy itself.

The challenge is to establish a regulatory framework that respects the complexities of the digital age while upholding the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Striking this balance is not just a legal necessity but also a moral imperative for the future of democratic societies.

Striking a Balance for the Future of Digital Rights

As we navigate the complexities of the digital age, Ethiopia serves as a compelling case study for the rest of Africa and, indeed, the world. The country is at a crossroads, grappling with the challenge of balancing individual freedoms with state interests in the realm of online expression. This balance is not just a local issue; it has far-reaching implications for how we understand and protect human rights in the digital era.

The internet has become an integral part of our lives, offering unprecedented opportunities for civic engagement and social change. However, these opportunities come with risks, notably the potential for state overreach and suppression of dissent. As digital platforms continue to evolve, so too must the laws and regulations that govern them. The aim should always be to create an environment where rights are not just theoretical concepts but lived realities.

The African Charter and its subsequent Declarations provide a solid foundation, but they are not the end of the story. Implementation is key, and that requires political will, public awareness, and active engagement from all sectors of society. Only then can we hope to bridge the gap between policy and practice, making digital freedom of expression a practical and effective right for all.

In conclusion, the future of digital rights in Ethiopia—and by extension, Africa—is still being written. It’s a collective endeavor that requires ongoing dialogue, critical examination, and, most importantly, a commitment to upholding the ideals of democracy and human dignity. As we move forward, let us strive to strike that delicate balance, ensuring that the internet remains a space for free expression, open dialogue, and the betterment of society as a whole.

Adapted from an academic article for a wider audience, under license  CC BY 4.0

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