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Hate speech bill threatens to curtail freedom of expression in Ethiopia

By East Africa correspondent , Garowe Online
A man scrolls down his cell phone for social media newsfeed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia October 11, 2019. © 2019 REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie

ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopian parliament should revise a bill targeting to sabotage freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch has urged, terming is "draconian".

If approved, the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation could significantly curtail freedom of expression.

Drafted first last month, the bill targets to among others, regulate the use of social media, media, and internet, with the ultimate aim of 'thwarting' disinformation.

Since taking over in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been expanded rights and freedoms, shifting drastically from the previous conservative approach of muzzling freedoms.

But the ethnic violence witnessed recently at Oromia region and the capital Addis Ababa, may have significantly informed the government's decision to crack whip using the bill.

Human Rights Watch, however, maintains that the bill was ill-advised and violates the international law thus urgent need to revise it.

“The Ethiopian government is under increasing pressure to respond to the 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, Human Rights Watch said.

Ethiopia, Human Rights said, should instead adopt a comprehensive strategy to address incitement to violence, discrimination, and hostility, and invoke non-punitive measures to address hate speech.

The government, the group added, should embrace "programs to improve digital literacy, and efforts to encourage self-regulation within and between communities".

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.

“Ethiopia should be removing legal provisions that restrict free expression, not adding more vague provisions that risk stifling critical public debate on important issues,” Bader said.

“Parliament can play a key role in ensuring the proposed new hate speech law doesn’t become another tool for repression.”

At least 100 people have been killed since 2018 in ethnic violence, a move that is closely associated with freedom of speech in Ethiopia.

In October, Abiy Ahmed, blamed media entrepreneur Jawar Mohammed of allegedly using his OMN to spread hatred and propaganda, "leading to unacceptable violence".

Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2018, partly due to radical reforms in Ethiopia which includes paving way for freedom of speech and freeing political prisoners.


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