Hate Speech and the Tigray Genocide
Hate speech, dehumanizing metaphors, and outright calls for the eradication of Tigrayans have contributed to the genocide and widespread ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia. “To catch the fish, you must drain the sea,” is an example of a widely known phrase used by Ethiopian state-sponsored media against Tigrayans. Consistent dehumanization of a group of people, especially by government officials who are trusted and in the position to protect their citizens, can be a catalyst in making people feel justified in their violent hate and actions towards that group of people.
In December 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated,
“Genocide never fails to shock the world when it occurs. But it is never committed without clear, multiple warning signs. The victims are often early targets of hate speech, discrimination and violence. […] Hate speech is a clear warning sign, and we need to do better in rejecting it in all its forms. This includes ensuring that technology companies and social media platforms play their part. Religious leaders and civil society also have a key role in prevention. Governments need to guarantee civic space for human rights institutions and defenders to do their essential work, and they need to protect the rights of those at risk.”
As expressed by Secretary-General Guterres, religious leaders have a responsibility to prevent genocide. Alarmingly, religious leaders in Ethiopia have played a role in disseminating hate speech against Tigrayans, as seen in this video where Tigrayans are slyly referred to as “hyenas” who must be “baptized with fire.” Religious institutions have allowed and enabled the demonization of Tigrayans in their televised church services, using religion as a tool for hate speech and propaganda. Some Ethiopian religious leaders refuse to support peaceful negotiations that could end the Tigray genocide.
Despite the deliberate targeting of Tigray’s religious heritage and sacred places of worship throughout the genocide, Ethiopian religious leaders who have spoken out against the atrocities are close to none. In May 2021, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Abune Mathias, condemned the Ethiopian government’s genocidal actions against Tigrayans for the first time after being silenced by the genocidal regime for months. After his comments, the patriarch was put on what is described as “unofficial house-arrest.”
Hate towards Tigrayans has a long history and was widespread before the beginning of the genocidal war in November 2020. In a 1996 interview with Professor Tilahun Yilma, who frequently expressed his desire for the separation of Tigrinya-speaking people from Ethiopia, Tigrayans are blatantly described as “a malignant cancer that has been eating away at [Ethiopia’s] vital parts.” The professor then openly calls for the forcible removal of Tigrayans, stating, “If we don’t excise this cancer promptly, Ethiopia will cease to be a nation.”
This genocidal rhetoric has been echoed through media such as ESAT, an Ethiopian satellite news network headquartered in Washington, D.C., now sponsored by the current Ethiopian government. ESAT has been a consistent actor in spreading hate speech against the people of Tigray since its inception in 2010. This article from 2017 details ESAT’s provocation of ethnic hatred and acts of violence towards Tigrayans. A petition was created to take action against ESAT, whose journalist Mesay Mekonnen stated it is necessary to “drain the sea” to “catch the fish,” referring to Tigrayans as the “sea” and Tigrayan leadership as the “fish.” Other state-sponsored media and political analysts such as Seyoum Teshome have constantly used hate speech and genocidal rhetoric to call for the extermination of Tigrayans in Ethiopia.
Such rhetoric has only increased since the start of the genocidal war in November 2020 and especially since June 2021 when the Tigray Defense Forces shifted the military dynamics. The United States has warned of dehumanizing rhetoric used by Ethiopian leadership, who have described Tigrayans as “cancers” and “weeds.” Dehumanizing metaphors, such as referring to a minority ethnic group as a disease or invasive species, can lead others to develop hostile feelings towards that group of people and see them as “less human.”
After enough exposure and belief in the dehumanizing language, people will feel a sense of justification in any violent or hateful act they take towards the dehumanized group. Such dangerous language is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, where millions of people were subjected to the deadly outcome of dehumanizing rhetoric and hate speech — genocide. Hate speech must be taken seriously, especially when disseminated by official state actors obligated to protect their citizens. In June 2021, a European Union special envoy revealed that Ethiopian leaders vowed to “wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years,” a clear indication of the Ethiopian government’s intentions.
In addition to inciteful hate speech, efforts from the Ethiopian government, state-sponsored media, and other actors have deliberately characterized Tigrayans as a danger to society. For example, in a deleted tweet, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education called for the imprisonment of Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the World Health Organization. This disturbing demand raises concern, as the mass arrest, disappearance, and ethnic profiling of Tigrayans, including children under 3 years of age, have been widespread across Ethiopia since the beginning of the genocide. In a deleted tweet from the official Twitter account of the African Union, a staff member compared Tigrayan leadership to the Taliban, while insisting that negotiations with said leaders are impossible. Mockery of the weaponized sexual violence happening in Tigray must also be taken seriously, as exemplified by the job termination of a Lyft driver after his inappropriate comments. Further degradation of Tigrayans occurred in a recent meeting with Congresswoman Karen Bass, where Ethiopian filmmaker Theodros Teshome made several villainizing blanket-statement implications that Tigrayans are inherently treacherous, insinuating that they are responsible for wrongdoings in Ethiopia’s history.
The Ethiopian government, state-sponsored media, religious institutions, social influencers, and ordinary citizens have participated in hate speech and genocidal rhetoric against Tigrayans. A recent investigation on the ill use of Facebook in developing countries revealed that groups associated with the Ethiopian government and state media incited violence against Tigrayans by using dehumanizing terms like “hyenas” and “a cancer” to describe the ethnic minority group. Viral Facebook posts accusing Tigrayans of crimes have been sweeping the internet, accompanied by comments insisting Tigrayans should be wiped out.
Tigrayans in Ethiopia and the diaspora have been targeted by hate speech, gaslighting, and the denial of atrocities despite the mounting evidence. Tigrayan children, whether infants or young adults, are often referred to as “junta orphans” and “terrorists.” Additionally, allies who advocate to end the man-made famine and violence in Tigray are not excluded from such harassment. It is imperative that spewers of hate speech and genocidal rhetoric at all levels, from government officials to TikTok users, be held accountable to mitigate any violent consequences of their words.
In its Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, the UN commits to monitoring and addressing hate speech, as well as implementing ways to support victims of hate speech. The UN must uphold its responsibility in preventing genocide and protecting Tigrayans from hate speech and genocidal rhetoric. Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has condemned the widespread hate speech from Ethiopian leaders: “The references to people as weeds that need to be removed, or as monsters that must be erased, is classic hate speech. And calling for the total extermination of any political party and its supporters is tantamount to incitement to commit war crimes and other atrocities.”
Omna Tigray Contributor, September 2021