Joining a much larger pool of countries recently looking to enact new “Hate Crime” laws governing or regulating the flow of free speech across the internet, Ethiopian authorities have recently announced a new initiative to draft new laws imposing fines or jail sentences for activists and/or press organizations deemed to be inciting violence or spreading hatred online. The initiative was announced for the first time last month, November 23rd 2018, under the conditions that lawmakers submit the final bill for approval/vote within the next 100 days.
According to a November 2018 report by the Addis Standard, “Ethiopia is struggling from the surge of hate speech and fake news in its limited cyber space.” Therefore, as a result, “the Office of Attorney General is preparing a draft bill aiming to curb hate speech and bring accountability towards public speeches and every other discourse, which is deemed to ignite hate and ethnic tensions in the country.” Explaining how the Ethiopian Government heavily blames the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as online “Fake News” platforms for the recent rises in ethnic tensions over the course of the last decade.
By cracking down on so called ‘abusive online dialect,‘ the country hopes to resolve future conflicts – or at least limit them. However, in response to the new initiative, Human Rights Watch cautions that “any law that limits freedom of expression by punishing hate speech must be narrowly drawn and enforced with restraint, so that it only targets speech that is likely to incite imminent violence or discrimination that cannot be prevented through other means.” Adding that “many governments have tried and failed to strike the right balance, and Ethiopia’s own track record offers reason for alarm. In the past, the Ethiopian government has used vague legal definitions including in its anti-terrorism law, to crack down on peaceful expressions of dissent.”
Ethiopia to free thousands of Oromo political detainees: Detainees were accused of violence during the 2015 and 2016 protests in Oromia region, which left 900 dead. https://t.co/Get9HTo1g9 #terrorism #security
— Ultrascan HUMINT (@ultrascanhumint) January 27, 2018
Dating back to the Ormo protests of 2015, the Anonymous hacker collective has been particularly interested in the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, helping to teach Ethiopian activists how to remain safe, secure and Anonymous online. In addition to setting up encrypted chatrooms for activists to coordinate with one another, Anonymous has also helped Ethiopians set up encrypted email accounts and teach them how to use VPN’s and proxies to circumvent Government controls/restrictions. This effort has also been publicly aided by services such as ProtonMail and groups like Amnesty International. As Anonymous would also be the first to tell you, Anonymous is not a group, rather it’s simply an “idea” – and you can not arrest and idea.
In regards to the drafting of this new law, perhaps in a nod to Anonymous’ operations inside the country over the years, one Ethiopian official was quoted as saying that “Narratives seem to change on the social media. This, however, will be tested as the government can not jail ideas, but people.” I guess we will have to see how well this works out for them…..
For the time being, Ethiopian officials have opened up the door for constructive criticism and feedback from the general public before the finalized version of the bill is submitted.