A few months to elections, Ethiopia’s parliament has passed a law punishing hate speech and misinformation with hefty fines and long jail terms. The bill was passed despite rights groups saying it undermines free speech months before a major election.
Nearly 300 legislators voted in favour of the bill on Thursday, with 23 votes against and two abstentions.
The new bill defines hate speech as rhetoric that fuels discrimination against individuals or groups based on their nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities.
The bill permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,100) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts that results in violence or disturbance of public order.
The law, however, says spreading hate speech does not include liking or tagging such content on social media.
Legislators say the law is important because existing legal provisions did not address hate speech and disinformation. They further explain that the bill will not affect citizens’ rights.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” legislator Abebe Godebo said. “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
Several legislators who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.
The Need for the Hate Speech Bill
Ethiopia has been experiencing deadly ethnic violence since June 2018. The ethnic violence started shortly after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced sweeping political reforms for which he later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ahmed has been praised for reforms hoped to foster a more open political and media environment. But domestic critics accuse him of being authoritarian because he has locked up political opponents.
The government says there is a need to legislate against hate speech because it has been partly blamed for rising ethnic violence in the East African nation.
With the new bill, tensions will be at an all-time high in advance of landmark elections due in August. International rights groups say the law creates a legal means for the government to muzzle opponents.
Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle said: “Politicians or activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid that their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or can be considered as false information”.
In December 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) had warned the bill could drastically curtail freedom of expression in the country.