Ethiopian lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a controversial law aimed at curbing hate speech and disinformation, especially online, just months ahead of a major election.
Thursday’s decision came amid concerns over widespread online false information and hate speech that some observers blame for ethnic tensions in the East African nation.
The new law permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,000) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts that are deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
300 legislators approved the measure while only 23 lawmakers voted against it. Two others abstained.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” lawmaker Abebe Godebo said. “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
Opponents say the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.
“The new law “will not meet its goal but will discourage free expression and may eventually target people who make innocent mistakes,” Befekadu Hailu, director of the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy, told The Associated Press. “But most importantly, legal actions are usually used by the state to stifle dissent in the country. To say something positive … it may have a deterrence effect for irresponsible social media users.”
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. The loosening of restrictions on political space also led some in the country of more than 80 ethnic groups to air long-held grievances.
Some government officials and observers have called for the need to regulate hate speech and disinformation online, citing the ethnic unrest.
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 law, however, says “dissemination” doesn’t include liking or tagging such content on social media.
Human Rights Watch said the law could “significantly curtail freedom of expression.”
“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. “But an ill-construed law that opens the door for law enforcement officials to violate rights to free expression is no solution.”