Ethiopia Passes Controversial Hate Speech Law. Rights Groups Say It Will Stifle Debate On Social Media

Ethiopia Passes Controversial Hate Speech Law. Rights Groups Say It Will Stifle Debate On Social Media

hate speech law
Rights groups are concerned that a new Ethiopian hate speech law undermines freedom of speech and makes it legal for the government to silence critics. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon the Eritrean delegation’s arrival at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Image: AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene

The Ethiopian government has passed a law criminalizing social media posts that stir unrest a few months before Ethiopians are scheduled to vote in major elections.

In February, Ethiopia passed a law punishing hate speech with significant fines and long jail terms, despite fears by rights groups that the law undermines freedom of speech, according to News24.

The new law defines hate speech as rhetoric that fuels discrimination “against individuals or groups based on their nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities”, AlJazeera reports.

Penalties for disseminating hate speech online and in-person include fines of up to $3,100 and prison terms of up to two years. 

These prison terms can be extended to five years if the hate speech or “disinformation” results in “an attack on individuals or groups”.

International rights groups say the law makes it legal for the government to silence critics and protestors. 

“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.”

Ethiopians are voting in elections in August and tensions are expected to rise ahead of that, AlJazeera reports.

The country has experienced ethnic violence for many years. The Oromo is the largest tribe in Ethiopia with at least 30 million people identifying as Oromo.

The Oromo community has for long been socially and economically marginalized by successive government regimes and this fuelled resentment and protests which have often ended in bloodshed.

Ethnic violence flared up shortly after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced wide-ranging political reforms for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Ahmed has been praised for reforms aimed at fostering a more open political and media environment. The hate speech law is a step backward in the eyes of the prime minister’s critics

The government says there is a need to legislate against hate speech which it blames for rising ethnic violence in the country.