Ethiopian Draft Law on Hate Speech Can Significantly Curtail Freedom of Expression: HRW

By Staff Reporter

Human-Rights-WatchDecember 20, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that Ethiopia’s draft Proclamation on Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression can significantly curtail freedom of expression if approved.

‘’Any law that limits freedom of expression by punishing hate speech must be narrowly drawn and enforced with restraint,’‘ HRW cautioned in a report released on Friday.

HRW said Ethiopia’s track record of using vague laws, such as the anti-terrorism law to crack down on ‘peaceful expressions of dissident’, offers reason for alarm.

The anti-terrorism law is currently being reviewed as part of an effort by the Abiy Ahmed-led government to open the political and democratic space in the country.

Since the mid-2018, Ethiopia has experienced serious communal violence. According to the government, some of that may have been provoked or exacerbated by online speech that fomented ethnic tension and violence. In late 2018, the government announced it was preparing a bill to tackle hate speech, the report said.

On November 9, 2019, following a wave of protests in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and in the Oromia region, which led to communal violence in a number of locations and the deaths of 86 people, the government promptly approved the proclamation.

“The Ethiopian government is under increasing pressure to respond to rising communal violence that has at times been exacerbated by speeches and statements shared online,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But an ill-construed law that opens the door for law enforcement officials to violate rights to free expression is no solution.”

The use of hate speech laws around the world shows that authorities have often abused them for political purposes, the Human Rights Watch said.

"The government should instead adopt a comprehensive strategy to address incitement to violence, discrimination, and hostility, and invoke non-punitive measures to address hate speech, Human Rights Watch said. This should include regular public messaging from the prime minister and other public figures about the dangers of hate speech, programs to improve digital literacy, and efforts to encourage self-regulation within and between communities,"  the report noted.

According to HRW, the draft proclamation’s definition of hate speech is not narrowly restricted to speech that is likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination or hostility, as is required under international law. Instead, it broadly allows punishment for “speech that promotes hatred, discrimination or attack against a person or an identifiable group, based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or disability.” Nor does the draft law set out an objective process to make this determination.

The draft includes new, vaguely-worded online, broadcast and print activities subject to criminal penalty. It criminalizes the “dissemination of disinformation” defined as speech that is knowingly “false,” without defining this concept. It also sets criminal penalties if speech is not “truthful,” which international law does not require, it said

During a visit to Ethiopia in December, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, raised concerns that the law did not meet international standards and that broadly defined provisions, notably on hate speech, which could lead to up to five years in prison, could give law enforcement authorities wide scope for misinterpretation.

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