Ethiopia's New Hate Speech and Disinformation Law Weighs Heavily on Social Media Users and Internet Intermediaries

By Edrine Wanyama |

In March 2020, Ethiopia enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation to address hate speech and disinformation, which have historically troubled the country. However, whereas government regulation is legitimate to control hate speech, Ethiopia’s new law poses a threat to freedom of expression and access to information online. 

The Proclamation appears well-intentioned judging from its objectives. These are stated as: “to protect freedom of expression while suppressing all forms of hatred and discrimination; promote tolerance, civil discourse and dialogue, mutual respect and strengthen democratic governance; and to control and suppress the dissemination and proliferation of hate speech, disinformation, and other related false and misleading information.”

In reality, besides having overbroad and ambitious definitions that are subject to misinterpretation and abuse, the new law also weighs heavily on social media users and intermediaries, and introduces harsh penalties, contrary to international human rights instruments, including articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. 

The overbroad definitions in the law render it subject to discretionary interpretation by law enforcers such as prosecutors and courts, which creates fertile ground for abusing citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and the right to information. Shortly after it came into force, the law was used to charge journalist Yayesew Shimelis for allegedly attempting to incite violence by spreading false information contrary to article 5 of the Proclamation.

The law holds intermediaries liable for content policing,  with article 8 requiring providers of social media services to act within 24 hours to remove or take out of circulation disinformation or hate speech upon receiving notifications about such communication or post.

Further, the law introduces harsh penalisation of hate speech or disinformation over social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers. The punishment prescribed is imprisonment of up to three years and 100,000 birr (USD 2,907), but where violence or a public disturbance occurs as a result of dissemination of disinformation, the punishment is “rigorous imprisonment from two year up to five years”. 

The new law – as well as the internet shutdown imposed in the country at the end of June 2020 – go counter to the reform programme introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office in early 2018. Indeed, some suggested that the indictment of Shimelis under the new law might be politically motivated.

In a country with a history of severe restrictions to digital rights and freedoms,  censorship, as well as persecution and prosecution of journalists, the likelihood for the new law to become a tool of suppression is high.

In this brief, CIPESA outlines the problematic provisions of the Proclamation and calls upon the government to amend or repeal the law. 

Good News, Bad News: A Story of Internet Shutdowns in Togo And Ethiopia

By Juliet Nanfuka |

The pushback against internet shutdowns in Africa received a boost last month when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the 2017 internet shutdown in Togo was illegal. This followed another win just over a year ago when, in January 2019, the Zimbabwe High Court ruled that the state-initiated internet shutdown that same month was illegal.

However, barely a week after the ECOWAS ruling, Ethiopia  initiated a nationwide shutdown, thus serving a reminder of the persistent threat of internet shutdowns on the continent. Ethiopia has a history of repeated network disruptions, including during national high school exams, but mostly as a means to stifle public protests. Prior to the latest disruption, last year a 10-day nationwide disruption was initiated following the assassination of six top government officials.

The latest disruption comes on the heels of protests triggered by the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular musician and democracy activist. Between January and March 2020, millions of Ethiopians in the western Oromia region were similarly disconnected from the internet and were in the midst of a government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services and thus could not readily access information, including Covid-19 news.

Ethiopia’s shutdown also bears some traits with the Togolese shutdown of 2017, which was initiated following the announcement of planned anti-government protests by members of the opposition and resulted in internet access being disrupted during September 5–11, 2017. In 2019, the digital rights advocacy group Access Now led a coalition of eight organisations, including CIPESA, in filing an amici curiae (friends of the court)  brief in a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International Togo and other applicants.

The ruling by the ECOWAS court acknowledges that the internet shutdown, in addition to being illegal, was also an affront on the right of freedom to expression, echoing a 2016 resolution by the United Nations on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. Further, Access Now reports that the court ordered the government of Togo to pay two million CAF (USD 3,459) to the plaintiffs as compensation, and to take all the necessary measures to guarantee the implementation of safeguards with respect to the right to freedom of expression of the Togolese people.

In both Ethiopia and Togo, old habits die hard. Last February, when Togolese citizens went to vote, authorities disrupted access to messaging services (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram) on election day after the polls had closed. The disruption was imposed despite the call by local and international rights groups urging the government to ensure an open, secure, and accessible internet throughout the election period.

A statement issued by the #KeepItOn coalition in the wake of latest disruption noted that the Ethiopian government has a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and access to information rights of all persons in the country, as enshrined in its national constitution, as well as regional and international frameworks including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. It added: “The government should be working to make sure Ethiopians connect to the internet, not the contrary.”

Almost two weeks after the disruption was initiated, reports started emerging that internet was partly restored. Digital rights advocates have noted that disruptions undermine the economic benefits of the internet, disrupt access to essential services such as health care, and often fail to meet the established test for restrictions on freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly under the ICCPR.

The network disruption does not help Ethiopia’s reputation which is battling to shake off its autocratic history.  The Horn of Africa country, which was due to hold parliamentary elections this August, has since postponed these plans but continues wading through political and economic reforms, some of which impact on internet access and digital rights.

A study of network disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that the less democratic a government is, the more likely it is to order an internet disruption. Both Ethiopia and Togo are characterised as authoritarian on the Economist Democracy Index.

The decision by the ECOWAS court marks a notch in the push back against internet shutdowns in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other cases against shutdowns have been lodged in various courts, including in Uganda and Cameroon, and serve as reference points for the necessity of strategic litigation in fighting network disruptions. However, judging from the experience of countries like Ethiopia, which have repeatedly disrupted networks, the strategic litigation needs to be complimented by several other efforts in fighting the scourge of shutdowns in the region and to become a thing of the past.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

Announcing the CIPESA 2020 Fellows

Announcement |
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is pleased to announce the nine recipients of its 2020 fellowship awards. Introduced in 2017, CIPESA’s fellowship programme aims to increase the quality, diversity and regularity of research and media reporting on ICT, democracy, and human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. 
The fellowship programme cultivates links between the academic community and practitioners in the ICT field for mutual research, learning, and knowledge exchange, so as to create the next generation of ICT for democracy and ICT for human rights champions and researchers. 
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nine fellows will primarily focus their energies on researching Covid-19 related censorship and surveillance practices and policy/regulatory responses by governments and private actors; and documenting trends and developments in technology for public good policy and practice.
Meet the fellows:
Astou Diouf – Senegal – Astou is a lawyer with undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications from Faculté des Sciences Juridiques et Politiques (FSJP), l’Université Cheik Anta DIOP de Dakar, with extensive experience in business litigation, cybercrime, and cybersecurity. She  will research the role of internet intermediaries and service providers in the fight against Covid-19 in Senegal, including on issues such as facilitating increased access to the internet, privacy and personal data infringements, and content regulation. 
Hopeton S. Dunn, PhD – Botswana – Hopeton is a Professor of Media and Communications at University of Botswana. He is also a non-resident Senior Research Associate at the School of Communication, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the former Director of the Caribbean School of Media and Communication (CARIMAC), University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica, where he also headed the Mona ICT Policy Centre (MICT). He is interested in communications policy reform, digital literacy and inclusion, effective internet access and equity, especially as they relate to people in the Global South. His work spans media regulation, technology policy-making, and new theoretical constructs for development. 
With a focus on Botswana and South Africa, Prof. Dunn will study the status of broadcast and online media regulation; technology and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic; and internet access and inclusion.
Afi Edoh – Togo – Togolese technology enthusiast Afi will study digital transformation and the digital economy in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Togo during the Covid-19 pandemic, to determine value and innovation opportunities as well as challenges. She is a member of the organising committee of the Internet Governance Forum for Youth in West Africa and has also served on the United Nations Internet Governance Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG). She holds a Masters and Bachelors in Information Technology from Sikkim Manipal University. 
Mohamed Farahat – Egypt – Mohamed is an Egyptian human rights lawyer, specialised in refugees and migration. He is a member of the Steering Committee of Internet Rights and Principles Coalition (IRPC), a member of the Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) of the North Africa Internet Governance Forum, and the National Coordinator of the African Civil Society on Information Society (ACSIS) Egypt chapter. Since 2014, he has worked with the Egyptian Foundation for Refugees Rights (EFRR). He holds a degree in Law from Cairo University, and post-graduate diplomas in International Negotiation; Human Rights and Civil Society; African Studies; and International Law. Currently, he is a Master Degree researcher in the Faculty of African Studies – Cairo University.
As part of the fellowship, Mohamed will document inclusion of refugees in the technology-based responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in Egypt; and the role of the judiciary in the internet freedom landscape in North Africa.
Tusi Fokane – South Africa – Tusi, the former Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), will study the availability and use of digital technologies to combat the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa, with a focus on the criminalisation of misinformation, and obligations on service providers to remove fake news from their platforms. Furthermore, she will study the country’s readiness for electronic voting to comply with social distancing and other movement restrictions during the upcoming local government elections. Tusi is a co-founder and member of the Steering Committee of Re-Create, a coalition of South African creators who advocate for fair and balanced provisions in the ongoing copyright amendment process. She holds a Masters in Management degree in Public Policy from Wits University. Her particular interests are freedom of expression, technology, and human rights. 
Jimmy Kainja – Malawi – Jimmy Kainja is a lecturer in media, communication, and cultural studies at University of Malawi, Chancellor College. His main areas of academic and research interest are communication policy and regulation, journalism, new media, (mis)information and disinformation, freedom of expression, and the intersection between media and democracy. Kainja has been a blogger since 2007 and is a founding member of Africa Blogging, which he co-edited between 2015 and 2019. In addition, Kainja has written for a number of reputable international media organisations including the BBC, The Guardian, Aljazeera, and New African. Locally he is a regular contributor of analytical articles to Nation Publications Limited newspapers.
In the context of the February 3, 2020 Constitutional Court nullification of the presidential elections and scheduled fresh polls in June 2020, and in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kainja will study hate speech and misinformation, data protection, and access to information. 
Jean Paul Nkurunziza – Burundi – Jean Paul, a psychology and education sciences graduate of the University of Burundi, has been involved in digital rights policy and internet governance with the DiploFoundation and Internet Society since 2007. In 2010, he was awarded a fellowship at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum Secretariat. His CIPESA fellowship will focus on the political tensions in Burundi, including the recent internet disruption during elections; and ICT sector reforms by the new government, related to cybersecurity, privacy, and data protection. 
Dunia Tegegn – Ethiopia – Dunia is a legal consultant, who has previously worked as an Almami Cyllah Fellow with Amnesty International (United States) and as a Human Rights Officer at the East Africa Regional Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Dunia also worked as a Program Officer on Ending Violence against Women and Girls at UN Women Ethiopia, and on child protection issues with UNICEF Ethiopia. She holds a Master of Laws in National Security from Georgetown University Law Center and a Master of Arts in Human Rights from Addis Ababa University. Dunia is the first Africa Fellow for Georgetown’s LAWA program to earn a Master of Laws in National Security. She earned her bachelor degree in law from Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia. Dunia is a member of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), the Ethiopian Bar Association, and the Ethiopian American Bar Association.  
For her fellowship, she will study the role of the internet and access to information during 2020 elections in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia. 
Melissa Zisengwe – South Africa – Melissa is a Program Project Officer with the Civic Tech Innovation Network at Wits Governance School, based in South Africa. She holds an honours degree in Journalism and Media Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in English Language and Linguistics and Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University. Her work at the Civic Tech Innovation Network and Jamlab (also at Wits) focuses on digital innovation in Africa, including digital journalism and media, and promoting the growth and development of appropriate and effective uses of digital technologies in connecting government and citizens, in public participation, in transparency and accountability, and in delivering public services. In 2019 she was part of the Index on Censorship Youth Advisory Board – a project by Index on Censorship aimed at engaging with young people aged 16-25 from around the world and gathering their views on freedom of expression issues.
Inspired by the African Civic Tech database and the South Africa Cities Network Call for Local Covid-19 Data Responses, which is compiling an open evidence mapping of the use of open government data to address the Covid-19 response in South Africa’s cities and provinces, Melissa will study the use and adoption of civic tech during Covid-19 in select African countries. The research will pay close attention to Covid-19 civic tech and data responses related (but not limited to): Epidemiological info — a disease spread maps, statistics, dashboards; Disaster response information; Health and risk information; Services — food relief, disruptions, etc.; Information, guidelines, resource tools — for businesses, communities, citizens; Research and advocacy;  and Enhancing public communication and engagement and action.
Look out for the fellows’ outputs including blogs, policy briefs, and research reports on CIPESA’s online platforms in the coming months. 

Coalition of Civil Society Groups Launches Tool to Track Responses to Disinformation in Sub Saharan Africa

Press Release |
Today, Global Partners Digital (GPD), ARTICLE 19, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), PROTEGE QV and  the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria jointly launched an interactive map to track and analyse disinformation laws, policies and patterns of enforcement across Sub-Saharan Africa.
The map offers a birds-eye view of trends in state responses to disinformation across the region, as well as in-depth analysis of the state of play in individual countries, using a bespoke framework to assess whether laws, policies and other state responses are human rights-respecting.
Developed against a backdrop of rapidly accelerating state action on COVID-19 related disinformation, the map is an open, iterative product. At the time of launch, it covers 31 countries (see below for the full list), with an aim to expand this in the coming months. All data, analysis and insight on the map has been generated by groups and actors based in Africa.

Countries currently covered by the map: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

For further details, contact [email protected]
Quotes from groups:
Commenting on the launch, Article19 said: “Disinformation constitutes a major threat to the freedom of expression and the right to access information and it is geared to mislead the population and influence their opinions and views. The fight against disinformation requires a multifaceted approach ranging from education, awareness raising, proactive disclosure of public interest information, fact checking; independent regulation and effective self-regulation by legacy media and social media platforms among others. With the COVID19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that collective efforts are made to curb the impact of disinformation on public health and the rights of the public to know.”
“National legislation and policies aimed at countering and responding to disinformation should always strike the right balance between the need to protect people against this practice and the respect of human rights especially freedom of expression. Such measures should not be used to interfere or block divergent opinions and dissident voices. We are pleased to have been part of this joint initiative that has enabled us to work together with sister organisations in and outside the continent to publish this disinformation tracker.
This tracker is a start-up that will usher in more in-depth work analysing laws and policies around the disinformation phenomenon in the region, engaging media and civil society in analysis-based advocacy geared towards governments and intermediaries to protect human rights—particularly freedom of expression—in their disinformation response, to ensure any restriction and penalty are always justifiable, proportionate and compliant with international standards.”
The Centre for Human Rights said: “Disinformation is a global phenomenon whose effects are felt across the political, economic and social spectrum. Efforts being undertaken to counter the scourge of disinformation should respect human rights, especially freedom of expression. In addition, a sustained approach is required and should involve different stakeholders employing  legal and other  internationally set standards. The tracker is an attempt to showcase the nature of state regulation of disinformation in sub-saharan Africa and provides a basis for tackling this scourge.”
CIPESA said: “Speculation, false and misleading information circulating online is a challenge, not only in Africa but across the world. Legislative means against misinformation often undermine free speech and media. The tracker is a great resource for activists, to drive evidence based advocacy, policy engagement and litigation.”
GPD said: “Governments around the world have been grappling with how to respond to disinformation—a challenge given new urgency by the COVID-19 crisis. However, many of their responses pose real risks for freedom of expression. We hope that this tracker will support groups in the Africa region working to promote approaches to the disinformation challenge that protect fundamental human rights.”
PROTEGE QV said: “It is the responsibility of states to protect the security of their citizens, in the online space just as in the offline. Among threats to security online, disinformation has particular prominence, and can carry severe consequences. In seeking to tackle it, governments should balance the need to maintain security by promoting accurate information to citizens with the attendant risk of suppressing legitimate forms of expression. This tracker will serve as a key resource for groups working to ensure citizens have access to timely and accurate information.”

African Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA) Denounces Restrictions on  Freedoms in Kenya and Nigeria

Joint Letters |

The African Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA) has expressed deep concern about the use of cybercrimes legislation to restrict rights and freedoms in Kenya and Nigeria. In turn, the alliance has petitioned the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to help redress the situation in the two countries.

AIRA has urged the two Special Rapporteurs to publicly call on the governments of Kenya and Nigeria to ensure that their cyber-crimes laws do not restrict fundamental rights and freedoms during the Covid-19 pandemic.

See letter to the African Special Rapporteur and to United Nations Rapporteur

The alliance raised concerns about Nigeria’s Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act and Kenya’s Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (or CMCA, 2018) – also known as the “fake news” law. For both countries, the alliance noted that during the Covid-19 period freedoms, particularly movement, access to courts, as well as economic and social rights, are being curtailed due to the extraordinary powers held by the governments.

In Kenya, concerns were raised on misinformation and Covid-19 as well as on cyber-harassment. An example is the vaguely worded cyber harassment provision under section 27 of the CMCA, 2018, which has granted the Kenyan government the power to prosecute people for voicing their concerns and opinions. This provision has the potential to lead to convictions for single and one-off, rather than repeated, communication(s).

Meanwhile, AIRA stated that Nigeria had taken a similar stance as Kenya where in the 2015 Cybercrimes law also includes the criminalisation of single incidents of “annoying communication”. According to the alliance, this is a threat to legitimate expression which has already had a chilling effect on civic space and digital rights in Nigeria.

The alliance recognises the need to combat economic crimes committed using digital technologies, as well as the need to curb misinformation during this public health pandemic. However, AIRA also noted that the cybercrimes laws in Kenya and Nigeria had created instruments which enable authorities to arbitrarily monitor and regulate the activities of internet users and to control free expression online, in the absence of adequate safeguards.

About AIRA: The Africa Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA) undertakes collective interventions and executes strategic campaigns that engage the government, private sector, media and civil society to institute and safeguard digital rights. The alliance is made up of nine civil society organisations based in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa, BudgIT, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), the Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) and Paradigm Initiative.