Business + Politics
Has COVID-19 Impeded Free Speech? The “Land of Origins”, COVID-19 and Personal Liberties
8th September 2020
Freedom of speech is understood to be fundamental to the democratic system, a system that, thus far, has stood the test of time. We hold our freedom of speech dearly as human beings, with constitutions such as the United States reserving its first amendment to uphold such a right.
Historically, the ancient Greeks pioneered this principle around the early fifth century B.C as “Parrhesia” or “to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking”. Parrhesia was fundamental to the democracy of classical Athens, with courts, theatres and assemblies subscribing to its proponents, much like today’s contemporary structure. However, protection of speech was first introduced by King John of England in 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta, a charter of liberty and political rights, subjective to who you’re asking of course.
Today, free speech centres around the 1948 United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes free speech as a human right.
‘If the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and press is to mean anything, it must allow protests even against the moral code that the standard of the day sets for the community’ – William O.Douglas (1957)
In the past outbreaks of disease have shaped our politics, crushed revolutions, and entrenched racial and social discrimination. Epidemics have also altered the societies which they have spread through, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and man-made and natural environments. COVID-19 is much the same in this sense, with its presence rapidly altering the political, social and economic landscapes of our modern world.
Now COVID-19 is attacking not only our ability to be heard, but also the legitimacy of that voice. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is one of the many prevalent examples of where freedom of speech has been hindered by COVID-19’s continued exponential growth. However, I do feel Ethiopia, unlike many other examples I could use, will disproportionately suffer from the stripping of such scarce personal freedoms.
“In the past outbreaks of disease have shaped our politics, crushed revolutions, and entrenched racial and social discrimination.“
As of July 23rd, Ethiopia, the ‘Land of Origins’, where humans first walked uprights, ranks 75th in world COVID rankings, with 11,524 cases. For a country of 115 million inhabitants, this stat isn’t particularly daunting. However, when we look at the additional statistics of testing capacity and availability, the issues become more cognizant. Arbitrary arrests, persecution of government critics and journalists have spiked following the declaration of a state of emergency on April 8th 2020. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed cited such arrests under enforced emergency legislature, stating “media institutions are to deliver accurate information to the public”.
However, if we are to critically analyze such statements, a reality of biased corruption and state censorship shines through. This lockdown on free speech has been exacerbated by the change in government., Under the current administration, the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation legislation grants government authorities powers to fine and imprison citizens for their social media activity, infringing on the autonomy to speak, organize, mobilize, and challenge the government’s narrative.
We have seen the impacts of this on a personal level, with stories such as that of Yayesew Shimelis. Shimelis, an employee of Tigray TV, a regional government-owned station, published on his personal Facebook and YouTube the proposal and preparation of 200,000 graves in anticipation of deaths from COVID-19. The following day Oromia police arrested Shimelis at his family home, seizing his laptop, cellphone and notebooks.
Other examples of free speech infringement can be seen in examples like that of Elsabet Kebede, a prominent member of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association. On April 4th, Addis Ababa police detained Kebede and transferred her to the custody of Harari regional authorities. Reports suggest officials have not charged her with an offence but accuse her of disseminating false news on Facebook posts they claim could ‘instigate violence’.
Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, a non-profit organization that monitors internet censorship expressed his concern on the ever-increasing powers of censorship in Ethiopia.
“On 22 June 2018, his government (Ahmed) declared free expression a foundational right and ordered the unblocking of over 200 websites. Instead, exactly one year later, the entire internet has been blocked and Ethiopia is digitally isolated from the world”
Such issues are unfortunately not pandemic exclusive, beyond arrests of some high-level officials in November 2019, there has been little progress on accountability for past abuses within Ethiopian institutions. A national reconciliation commission was set up in December 2018 but it has an unclear mandate.
For the roughly 16 million internet users in Ethiopia, internet shutdowns have been routine since 2015, with newly implemented emergency powers exacerbating restrictions. Internet access is key to unlocking the country’s economic, social and political potential. Continuing internet blackouts and censorship are costing Ethiopians roughly $4.5 million each day the internet is cut, hindering proposed social initiatives to lift inhabitants from poverty.
Featured photo by wiredforlego