Ethiopia Approves Controversial Law on Hate Speech and Disinformation

By Staff Reporter

Parliament-EthiopiaFebruary 13, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- The Ethiopian parliament on Thursday approved one of the most controversial bills on hate speech and disinformation amid growing concerns from media, civil societies, and world human rights bodies on the effectiveness of the law.

The new law prohibits the dissemination of fake news on electronic, print or social media using text, image, audio, and video that incite violence, promote hatred and discrimination against a person or a group.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) late last year cautioned that the law would restrict freedom of expression and serve as another tool for repression

In a couple of discussions with legislatures, journalists also raised concerns about the draft law and described it as “unconstitutional.”

It must be noted that, early in his tenure, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed severely criticized former EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) governments for using hate and terror laws to curb freedom of speech and fight political opponents.

Under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, hundreds of journalists were imprisoned following the press law the parliament passed in 2008. At the time, the Ethiopian government argued that the law would not infringe on freedom of speech (see this report: Ethiopia Passes Controversial Press Law). Years later, however, the media shied away from journalistic duties for fear of being sued or going to jail.

The Attorney General’s office last week said the bill was meant to curb the rising hate speech and irresponsible use of social media. Many are not sure how the Attorney General's office will use the law to fight fake news, without infringing on legitimate news and opinions.

Before the law was enacted, some of the MPs commented that the new law is against article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution which states that everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.

With the new law, the government wants to control social media outlets which it believed are recklessly are being used to aggravate clashes between ethnic groups, as well as the spreading of insults against politicians and government officials.

Since mid-2018, Ethiopia has experienced waves of violence that might have been provoked or exacerbated by online speech that fomented ethnic tension and violence. Following a series of violence in late 2018, the government announced it was preparing a bill to tackle hate speech.

The majority of the MPs said the law is needed because existing legal provisions didn’t properly address hate speech and disinformation. However, some argued the law would curtail freedom of expression and the media.

According to the new law, content with hate speech or misinformation that is broadcast, printed or disseminated on social media platforms with more than 5,000 followers is punishable with up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 birr.

“It is pressing urgently for Ethiopia to regulate hate speech and disinformation which have significantly contributed to the unfolding of the polarized political climate, ethnic violence and displacement across the country, those MPs who were in favor the new law commented

The new law rules punishment for “speech that promotes hatred, discrimination or attack against a person or an identifiable group, based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or disability.

The bill on hate speech and disinformation was finally approved with majority vote, 23 against, while two abstained.

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