New Ethiopia law feared undermining free speech

By Addis Getachew

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AA) – The Ethiopian parliament on Thursday passed a legislation that criminalizes hate speech and fake news, a move criticized by human rights groups as a threat to freedom of expression.

The Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation law, which bans the production and dissemination of hate speech and fake news, such as creating or sharing social media posts that could result in violence or disturbance of public order, was passed into law by the House of People’s Representatives with a majority vote in the 547-seat parliament. Some 23 lawmakers voted against it while there were two abstentions.

Violators could be fined as high as 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,115) and imprisoned for up to five years.

Since the mid-2018, Ethiopia has experienced serious communal and ethnic violence. According to the authorities, some of that may have been provoked by hate speech and fake news that fomented ethnic tension and violence.

Violence has increased since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, came into power. This is because the reformist leader ensured the right to free speech and assembly for all.

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

"The government has had other options to target hate speech and fake news," Befeqadu Hailu, executive director of the Addis Ababa-based Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy, told Anadolu Agency.

"After all, it is the lack of access to government information that makes fake news surface," he said, adding: "Now that it has been passed, authorities should not be abusing it."

Earlier, the Human Rights Watch warned that the bill could significantly curtail freedom of expression if approved. It urged the government to instead adopt a comprehensive strategy to address hate speech.

Similarly, during a visit to Ethiopia last December, David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, raised concerns that the law did not meet international standards and the clauses could give law enforcement authorities wide scope for misinterpretation.

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