Why Ethiopia Needs Free Speech


I am aware of what most people imagine when they think of Ethiopia. Probably a scene of starving children, clinging to goats on the side of dirt tracks. While reasonably widespread, this image is not altogether accurate. Over the last few years, parts of Ethiopia have been transformed by an economic miracle. This year alone the Ethiopian economy is predicted to grow by 8.3 percent, which is around four times the global average and makes Ethiopia one of the fastest developing economies in the world. To some, this would seem like a blessing, but in fact, reading those numbers may leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the 91 million residents of the East African regional power.

In 2017, Freedom House gave Ethiopia a freedom rating of 6.5 out of 7, (with one being most open and seven being not free at all). They cited not only the brutal crackdown on protestors that had taken place earlier that year as well as restriction on the internet and mobile phones as reasons for Ethiopia’s low score. On top of this, a year earlier, the Ethiopian government jailed 24 Journalists because they were likely to “cause terrorism,” and in 2012 three journalists and two opposition leaders were arrested on similar grounds.

The Ethiopian example shows us that while the global North West debates the value of free speech, it is developing nations that need freedom of expression now more than ever if they are going to uphold their democratic human rights.

Free speech is crucial to Ethiopian democracy. Theoretically, Ethiopia has a 528-seat strong representative parliament that has to some degree been elected democratically. In reality, this has not prevented the ruling party from having absolute power over the Ethiopian state for the last 22 years. In that time the party has managed to pass the “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009”, whose rather broad definition of terrorism allowed the Ethiopian government to imprison or attempt to detain several journalists and opposition party leaders.

There is a reason that free expression was codified into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Theorists such as John Stuart Mill, Cass Sunstein and Timothy Garton Ash have all pointed out how crucial free speech is to allowing people to a fulfilled life.  This may seem a little strange, but it all centers around the idea of self-fulfilment.  If society is not able to express its thoughts freely, it will severely limit an individual’s ability to form their own opinions.  This is because the sources that an individual can gain access to, in a restrictive place like Ethiopia, will be rather narrow. Thus, people may never be exposed to the vibrant debate that for Mill, is the only way to form a worldview. The next stage in self-fulfillment is the right to express your worldview. Again, for Mill and Garton Ash, it is the purpose of the marketplace of ideas to allow individuals to form and reform their worldview, and thus to mould and re-mould their opinions, and thus become more self-fulfilled.

The beauty of self-fulfillment is that it can be anything to anyone. It is the joy of trying to know what you do not know about yourself, to discover, to explore and to adventure. Middlebury College students will be excited to hear that this does not mean that you have to go outside, self-fulfilment spills from the pages of a life changing book in much the same way as it blows on a forest breeze.  Self-fulfilment could even be described as the search for why you and I are here, the very purpose of existence. As such it is more than a crime to rob Ethiopians of this wonder, and make no mistake, that is what the combination of an unresponsive government and speech-restrictive laws are doing.

Many would hold this view to be nonsense, particularly in the context of Africa and Ethiopia. How is it that I, despite my Ethiopian heritage, can criticise a country that I have never lived in, or even seen for the last 7 years? For some this is the epitome of neo-colonialism. These people might further this point by noting that arguing for free speech and self-fulfillment, requires one to make a value claim; that freedom is more important than order. What if Ethiopians are happy with the current state of their free speech? What if they would rather have unity than freedom? What right do I have to claim that the western values of individualism are superlative to the concept of tribe, family and state?

I accept that there is an inherent value claim at the centre of my argument, but if I don’t have the right to make it, then what right does the Ethiopian government have to enforce its value claim, of unity, on the rest of Ethiopia?

Equally, if there was a such a clear-cut consensus on what Ethiopian norms are, why were they arresting people and putting down large, widely spread protests in the first place?

The point is that cultures changes. Not ideally, not instantly, but incrementally. Episodes like the Arab spring and Glasnost have shown how this process is natural and to some extent, inevitable.

Therefore, using culture as a defence for the harms of ruling party current speech-restrictive policies is like placing a castle on quicksand, structurally unsound and likely to collapse rather violently in the future.

Ethiopia needs free speech, or more specifically the Ethiopian people need free speech, if they are going to have any sort of control over their destiny.