New Ethiopia law feared undermining free speech

Joanna Estrada
February 17, 2020

Ethiopia's parliament passed a law on Thursday imposing jail terms for people whose internet posts stir unrest, a move government says is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections but which the United Nations says will stifle free speech.

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

Anyone who is involved in producing and disseminating hate speech and disinformation, even on social media, may be subject to imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr. According to the authorities, some of that may have been provoked by hate speech and fake news that fomented ethnic tension and violence.

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.

Lawmakers said the law is needed because existing legal provisions didn't properly address hate speech and disinformation and said it will not affect citizens' rights beyond protecting them. "The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help balance those diversities".

Ethiopia has been experiencing sometimes deadly ethnic violence since June 2018, shortly after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced sweeping political reforms for which he later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But domestic critics accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, including locking up political opponents.

The parliamentary elections in Ethiopia will be held on August 29, the country's electoral board said.

"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", Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher with the rights group, said in December.

Rights groups criticized the new law, questioning the motives behind passing such a legislation.

Human Rights Watch has also warned the law could curtail freedom of expression: "Ethiopia should be removing legal provisions that restrict free expression, not adding more vague provisions that risk stifling critical public debate on important issues", it said.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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