BY SAMUEL GEBRE | BLOOMBERG
Ethiopia’s cabinet approved a law to combat hate speech and the dissemination of false information. The new proclamation is aimed at addressing the erosion of the nation’s “social cohesion, political stability and national unity,” the Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement.
Violence broke out last month in parts of Oromia which resulted in the deaths of 86 people. It was sparked when state security was withdrawn from influential activist Jawar Mohammed, who owns the Oromia Media Network.
Since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has implemented a reform agenda to open up Africa’s second-most populous nation.
He has scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea — an initiative that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
The country is due to hold national elections in 2020.
The Council of Ministers of Ethiopia in its meeting on Saturday, November 9, 2019, referred a new bill, called Computer Crime Proclamation that aims to prevent hate speech and dissemination of fake news, to the House of Peoples Representatives for approval.
“It is deemed necessary to enact the law because the nation cannot address problems arising from hate speeches and fake news with existing laws,” a statement issued from the council of ministers said. However, no detailed reasons were given why the current laws are inadequate to handle such news.
Very little details have been disclosed so far by the government regarding the bill, which could be controversial with the public and international human rights bodies.
The office of the attorney general which drafted and tabled the bill for discussion at the council of minister earlier said the new bill would deter irresponsible social media activism and fake news dissemination which it said served as catalyst for ethnic related violence in various parts of the country.
With the expansion of social media and heated political debate on national issues, the contents of hate speech and tribalism/racism are arguably on the rise, which some people advised for serious measures and stricter legislation to contain the unprecedented damage these may cause.
Many people, however, claim that censoring posts on social media and bringing accountability will hardly be successful. These people fear the law may actually further restrict the freedom of speech and the right to criticize the government.
The statement further said the good social values and interrelations between different ethnic groups of the country have been eroded due to hate speeches and fake news being circulated mainly via social media.
There were one or two public consultations over the matter back six months ago and several experts expressed concern with its possible impact on free speech, in direct opposition with the constitution of the country. Human rights activists are wary that the “computer crime proclamation” could be used as a tool to silence dissents.
According to the information released earlier from the attorney general office, sharing defamatory speech could get someone at least three years in prison per the new law.
The Council of Ministers, in its 75th regular session, also discussed and approved other bills including the agreement signed with Djibouti to build a natural gas pipeline.
The pipeline will be used to transport Ethiopian gas to an export terminal in the Red Sea state. In all, the Council approved a total of five draft bills in the meeting.