The indictment of Yayesew Shimelis is significant in the pandemic politics of Ethiopia.
Yayesew works as a columnist for Feteh magazine and hosts a weekly political program on
Tigray TV, a regional government broadcaster. He also posts reports on Facebook and the Ethio
Forum YouTube channel. Yayesew is vocal and has criticised the current administration for
issues including the process to create Prosperity Party, unrealistic regional diplomacy, and its
Without mentioning a source, on March 26 he posted on Facebook that, in anticipation of
COVID-19’s impact, the government had ordered the preparation of 200,000 burial places. His
Facebook profile was suspended shortly after he posted the message to his hundreds of thousands
of followers. After a few hours, Yayesew said on Twitter: “My Facebook page is closed; I didn’t
know what I said could be alarming at this scale. I apologize for everything”.
On the same day, the Ministry of Health condemned his statements as false. The next day, police
detained Yayesew in Addis Ababa and held him in jail for a few days. Since, the police have
requested two extensions of six days each to remand and investigate him, which were granted by
the First Instance Court.
In a 21 April 21, the Federal Attorney General charged Yayesew under Ethiopia’s newly enacted
and controversial Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation
No.1185/2020 at the Federal High Court Lideta bench.
Here there is an apparent contradiction between the Amharic and the English versions: the
former uses “and”, meaning both imprisonment and fine can be imposed together, while the
latter uses “or”, meaning the court may order imprisonment or fine, but not both. In
constitutional interpretation issues, Amharic is binding, yet in this instance it is unclear which
one prevails in the event of ambiguity.
If it’s the Amharic version, the Proclamation could have a chilling effect on freedom of
expression. It has a stern criminal provision that includes both imprisonment and steep fines. It is
bizarre to see the 5,000 followers’ standard as a threshold; the move seems to be novel, and
arbitrary. Is that based on Facebook’s friendship limit or comparative experience? Unlike Egypt
where the law obliges personal social media accounts with 5,000 followers to come under media
regulations, the 5,000 standard in Ethiopia is stricter and an aggravating grounds for a charge
rather than a starting point.
Moreover, the fine is large compared to the fines for crimes, such as female circumcision, and
alarming the public in the Criminal Code. For example, for female circumcision, the law orders a
fine of 500 birr. Thus, for disinformation, a journalist gets a punishment of 50,000 birr; the
magnitude is 100 times other ordinary crimes. Also, given the modest income of many social
media writers, this law could lead to self-censoring of free speech on the Internet and could force
some to reduce their followers to avoid punishment.
Draconian laws won’t die
Repressive laws have been used in Ethiopia to muzzle journalists, political dissenters, and others.
The government, through the prosecutorial apparatus, appears to be continuing to use oppressive
legislations to neutralise real or perceived political foes, effectively take over the democratic
sphere. For instance, under the cloak of countering hate speech and disinformation, the
government has the tool to stifle individual freedom using the vaguely formulated law.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right of Freedom of Opinion
and Expression, David Kaye, has expressed concerns about the ambiguous formulation of
Ethiopia’s hate speech law. The proclamation goes beyond the command of Article 20(2) and the
limitations on restrictions required by Article 19(3) of the ICCPR, since the definition of
disinformation is nebulous and over-broad and not based on international human rights
standards. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, laws should be clear, precise, and
unambiguous. Freedom of expression may be limited by laws that do not fit this description.
Given the case is pending, it is inappropriate to comment on the upcoming proceedings. But the
government should work to improve its handling of similar incidents in future. In this respect,
instead of criminalizing speech, it could emulate the British government’s detailed rebuttal of
media criticism of its pandemic handling.
As Judge Brandies famously opined: “….the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced
(Source:- Ethiopia Insight)