Nobel Peace Laureate Says Social Media Sows Hate in Ethiopia

Nobel Peace Laureate Says Social Media Sows Hate in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed warned against the “gospel of revenge and retribution” as he accepted the Nobel Prize in Oslo.


Credit…Fredrik Varfjell/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NAIROBI, Kenya — (nytimes)—-Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed warned in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Tuesday that social media is now being used to sow “hate and division” and undermine Ethiopia’s delicate political transition.

As he accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long war between his country and neighboring Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Abiy said that digital platforms are sabotaging the development of an “inclusive” political atmosphere in Ethiopia.

Mr. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the end to the long-running border dispute with Eritrea and for ushering in a new era of diplomatic and trade relations.

The Nobel committee also acknowledged the significant economic and political changes that he has introduced in Ethiopia since ascending to power.

Speaking at an ornate chamber at the Oslo City Hall before an audience of royals, dignitaries, and family members, Mr. Abiy did not specify which social media platforms were being used to sow discord or who was using them.

However, one of Mr. Abiy’s most vocal critics, Jawar Mohammed, has a large social media presence and commands a media network that he has used to organize opposition to Mr. Abiy.

Less than 20 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 109 million people were using the internet as of 2018, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

“The evangelists of hate and division are wreaking havoc in our society using social media,” Mr. Abiy said. “They are preaching the gospel of revenge and retribution on the airwaves.”

Mr. Abiy rose to power in April 2018, after years of deadly anti-government protests that forced his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn to resign. Beginning in 2015, members of marginalized ethnic groups rose up against the ruling party, demanding land reform, an end to human rights abuses and full political participation. The government responded by shooting at protesters, imposing a state of emergency and cutting off internet access.

During those blackouts, members of Ethiopia’s diaspora used social media to amplify news of the crackdown, eventually pushing the ruling party to put forward Mr. Abiy, a political insider who is of mixed religious and ethnic background, to lead the country.

Mr. Abiy, 43, has preached the philosophy of “medemer,” or unity, and has made peaceful coexistence and regional integration a central leitmotif of his administration. Under his leadership, Ethiopia has announced plans to liberalize its centralized economy and loosen the state’s monopoly on sectors including aviation and telecommunications. Mr. Abiy also released thousands of political prisoners, legalized opposition groups long classified as terrorists and pledged to revise and repeal repressive laws.

Despite this, his efforts to open up Ethiopia have also emboldened forces that could undermine not just his own rule but the country’s long-term stability. Dozens of people have been killed in growing unrest in the country, while more than 3 million people remain internally displaced because of ethnic and border-related disputes.

Mr. Abiy himself survived a grenade attack last year, and an attempted coup in the northern Amhara region in June revealed the restive political atmosphere brewing in the country ahead of the country’s next election, in 2020.

Mr. Abiy’s administration, however, bears some responsibility. It has recently faced censure over its recourse to tactics including arresting journalists and blocking the internet. On Monday, the Nobel Committee voiced its disappointment with Mr. Abiy after he indicated that he would refuse to take questions from the media while collecting his prize.

In Oslo, Mr. Abiy drew on his personal experiences as a soldier in the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict to deliver a speech deriding the futility of war and extolling the virtues of peace. He called on Ethiopians to “neutralize the toxin of hatred by creating a civic culture of consensus-based democracy, inclusivity, civility, and tolerance.”