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. 

Ethiopia’s Digital Rights Record on the Spot at May 2019 Universal Peer Review

By Ashnah Kalemera |
Despite the promises and efforts made by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, to transform the country after years of political repression and state control of major forms of media, the country is yet to experience substantive change in the state of digital rights.
Restrictions to freedom of expression, privacy, and access to information remain in force including through legislation such as the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism law, the Computer Crime law of 2016 and the Telecom Fraud Offences law (2012). While the establishment of the Advisory Law Reforms Committee, with a mandate to review existing laws to bring them in line with human rights standards, is a welcome development, pledges to reform problematic legislation are yet to be delivered.
Meanwhile, since November 2015, the Ethiopian government has consistently blocked and initiated national or regional shutdowns during public protest and exams, on grounds of national security. Whereas access to affected regions was restored during reforms in early 2018, there were reports of a shutdown in the eastern part of country in August 2018.   
At its upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council scheduled for May 14, 2019, Ethiopia should be tasked to implement reforms that fundamentally promote and protect citizens’ rights both online and offline.

What is the UPR? It’s a full assessment of a country’s human rights. Every United Nations (UN) member state has its human rights record assessed, and all UN member states are involved in the review process. It happens every four-and-a-half years, for every state.

Such reforms should include the amendment of the 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information law, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism law, the Computer Crime law of 2016 and the 2012 Telecom Fraud Offences law to bring them in line with international human rights instruments on freedom of expression. Further, changes should be implemented to curb state surveillance of citizens, including by introducing independent judicial oversight over interception of communications.
In this UPR advocacy brief, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Small Media analyse the state of freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right to equal access and opportunity, as well as data protection and privacy developments in Ethiopia since the previous UPR review in April 2014. We make recommendations for consideration by UN member states at the upcoming review of Ethiopia.
See the full brief. 

The Reforms Ethiopia Needs to Advance Internet Freedom

Policy Brief |
Since April 2018, the new Ethiopian government has been undertaking unprecedented political and economic reforms. This follows countrywide protests that forced the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to resign in February 2018, leading to the appointment of a young and charismatic new premier, Abiye Ahmed two months later. Since then, the government has freed thousands of prisoners; announced measures to liberalise the telecom, aviation, and transportation sectors; and dropped charges against many opposition leaders, bloggers, and activists. Further, the new administration has lifted the state of emergency that had been reinstated in February 2018, reconnected mobile and broadband internet services that were cut off since 2016, and unblocked 246 websites, blogs, and news sites that have been inaccessible for over a decade.
These changes in Ethiopia did not come at a whim. The protests that started in November 2015 in the Oromia region spread to other parts of the country. In response to these protests, the previous government continuously blocked social media sites and implemented national and regional internet blackouts, often claiming it aimed to safeguard national security or to stem cheating during national exams. Consequently, the Oromia region lost internet connectivity for two weeks in March 2018, three weeks before the new prime minister was sworn in. Moreover, as access to the internet deteriorated in the country, the government criminalised freedom of expression online and offline. The arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture of members of the Zone Nine bloggers collective showed how far the government was willing to go to suppress dissenting voices.
The new Prime Minister and his cabinet have promised to open the democratic space in the country and expand freedom of expression online and offline. However, these reforms should go beyond the unblocking of a few hundred websites; they should bring in real changes that will make it impossible to regress to old habits. Therefore, reforms to be implemented must expand internet penetration from the current 15%, to the larger offline majority. Laws that prosecute freedom of expression online and offline like the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Computer Crime Proclamation must undergo substantial revisions to meet international standards. Further, the changes within the law enforcement and intelligence agencies should go beyond replacing old officials with new ones, but must tame the undue power given to these bodies to conduct unwarranted surveillance and censorship of netizens. Lastly, the new government should desist from internet shutdowns and censorship.
See this brief titled The Reforms Ethiopia Needs to Advance Internet Freedom which gives a detailed description of prevailing challenges to internet freedom in Ethiopia and proposed reforms the Ethiopian government needs to undertake to improve internet freedom in the country.