Ethiopia: Bill Threatens Free Expression

Revise Draft Law on Hate Speech, Disinformation

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

(Nairobi, December 20, 2019 (HRW) – Ethiopian lawmakers should significantly revise the draft law on hate speech and disinformation currently before parliament, Human Rights Watch said today. If approved, the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation could significantly curtail freedom of expression.

Since mid-2018, Ethiopia has experienced serious communal violence that may have been provoked or exacerbated by online speech that fomented ethnic tension and violence. In late 2018, the government announced it was preparing a bill to tackle hate speech. On November 9, 2019, following a wave of protests in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and in the Oromia region, that led to communal violence in a number of locations and the deaths of 86 people, the government promptly approved the proclamation.

“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,” 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.

The government should instead adopt a comprehensive strategy to address incitement to violence, discrimination and hostility, and invoke non-punitive measures to address hate speech, Human Rights Watch said. This should include regular public messaging from the prime minister and other public figures about the dangers of hate speech, programs to improve digital literacy, and efforts to encourage self-regulation within and between communities.

The draft proclamation’s definition of hate speech is not narrowly restricted to speech that is likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination or hostility, as is required under international law. Instead it broadly allows punishment for “speech that promotes hatred, discrimination or attack against a person or an identifiable group, based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender or disability.” Nor does the draft law set out an objective process to make this determination.

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.

The draft is also unclear on what types of social media platforms may be affected, including whether people using online messaging applications on mobile phones that are largely used for private communication, and a key mode of communication in Ethiopia, especially in urban areas, may also be subject to criminal liability for sharing content considered to be “hate speech” or “disinformation.” It also includes vague articles prohibiting “dissemination” of hate speech that would allow for criminal punishment for someone who merely shares or reposts information.

Ethiopian and international freedom of expression experts have criticized the bill for its lack of clear definitions and for its vague and overly broad provisions. During a visit to Ethiopia in December, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, raised concerns that the law did not meet international standards and that broadly defined provisions, notably on hate speech, which could lead to up to five years in prison, could give law enforcement authorities wide scope for misinterpretation.

“The Ethiopian government has a range of tools at its disposal to counter hate speech that do not entail criminalizing protected speech,” Bader said. “It can start by publicly condemning speech that fuels ethnic tensions and ensuring that government officials promote dialogue that fosters tolerance.”

The draft law includes provisions calling on the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to conduct awareness raising activities and media literacy campaigns to educate people about disinformation and hate speech. Independent media outlets, as well as universities, nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and other respected bodies and individuals should also seek to provide Ethiopians with new platforms and opportunities to express their grievances and discuss critical issues, beyond social media.

While certain types of speech can be restricted under article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the threshold for such restrictions is high. They are also limited under article 19(3) of the ICCPR by the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality.

Under the 2012 Rabat Plan of Action, on implementing article 20 while respecting freedom of speech, UN experts agreed that incitement should be determined by several factors, including context, speaker, audience, and likelihood or imminence that such incitement could lead to the intended results.

Ethiopian authorities have over the past decade repeatedly used ill-conceived laws to clamp down on free speech and peaceful dissent. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, he committed to revisiting some of the most controversial laws, including a restrictive 2009 anti-terrorism proclamation, a new draft of which is pending before parliament, and a 2009 civil society proclamation that has since been repealed.

The parliament should work with the Advisory Council for Legal and Justice Affairs within the Attorney General’s office, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ethiopian nongovernmental groups, and other groups with expertise in freedom of expression before proceeding further with the draft law on hate speech and disinformation, Human Rights Watch said.

“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.”

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