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Ethiopia struggles with online hate ahead of telecoms opening

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Friday, 1 November 2019 10:38

Oromo youth chant slogans during a protest in-front of Jawar Mohammed's house, an Oromo activist and leader of the Oromo protest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

At least 78 people died and more than 400 others were arrested after the recent protests in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, the Prime Minister’s office told the media on Thursday.

The protests, which were triggered by an October 23rd Facebook post by Oromo activist and media owner Jawar Mohammed, spread across the region.

In the post, Mohammed accused security forces of trying to withdraw his state-provided security and “unleash civilian attackers and claim it was a mob attack.”

At a press conference on October 31st, the PM’s office said that the violence could have been worse had it not been for the intervention of security forces and elders.

In a press release on the same day, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission called for anyone who was responsible for the violence to be held accountable.

  • It estimated that 70-80 people died in the most recent violence, and that ten of them were killed in clashes with security forces.
  • The protests started whilst Abiy was travelling way to Russia for the Russia-Africa Summit, and presents him with a serious challenge from his Oromia home turf.

While he has been meeting many residents in the affected cities and towns since his return, Ethiopian media reported that protestors in Ambo City demanded his resignation shortly before he was scheduled to arrive for a similar meeting on October 31st.

Free speech and its discontents

Mohammed’s Facebook post and its violent, real-life effects have also rekindled conversations about hate speech and fake news in Ethiopia.

In April, Abiy’s government published a controversial draft law against hate speech and fake news. In the draft, posting hate speech would attract a five-year sentence, while fake news will attract a prison sentence of up to three years.

  • The law is controversial because of Ethiopia’s polarized history in recent years, as well as its ongoing democratic reforms.
  • One of PM Abiy’s first reforms was the release of journalists and political prisoners, as well as unblocking hundreds of websites mostly run by Ethiopians in the diaspora.
  • Ethiopia has blocked the internet several times this year, with Abiy Ahmed saying in August that “we shut the internet to save lives.”

Although Ethiopia has a low internet penetration, it has a politically vibrant diaspora community whose divisions mirror those in the East African country.

  • “Online conspiracy theories, political rants and rumours laced with communal hatred are now common genres in Ethiopian social media,” Endalk, a lecturer at Arba Minch University in Southern Ethiopia wrote in August.

Although Facebook, the most popular social platform in the country, supports Amharic, it only hired a market specialist for the country in July.

The specialist is focused on Amharic, although researchers and users have tracked at least five other major Ethiopian languages that online users are using online to spread hate speech and fake news.

Legendary athlete Haile Gebreselassie said he is considering suing Facebook for being responsible for “a huge share of security problems in Ethiopia for the past few years.”

These challenges with online hate speech and fake news come just months before Ethiopia is scheduled to open up its telecoms market to private investors.

  • As competition and internet penetration undoubtedly grow, the government will have a hard time balancing its security goals with its economic reforms.

Meanwhile, dam talks continue

While the country suffers the ethnic-based violence, Abiy also has to concentrate on negotiations over the speed of filling of the Millenium dam.

Ethiopia acquiesced to Egypt’s demand for a neutral arbiter in the Nile dispute, after a meeting between its Prime Minister and the latter’s president on the side-lines of the Russia Summit.

  • Egypt’s foreign affairs minister said on Tuesday that the two countries and Sudan will meet in the United States on November 6th “to break the deadlock in the ongoing negotiations regarding the Renaissance Dam.”

Egypt, which has been scrambling to ink a deal as the due date for Ethiopia’s $4bn dam draws nearer, also separately invited Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to mediate the dispute.

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