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Government targets hate speech, disinformation

Government targets hate speech, disinformation

MPs urge for severe punishment

Aimed at controlling and deterring the spread of hate speech and disinformation among the society by, “irresponsible activists,” the government has tabled a draft bill before the House of People’s representatives (HPR), a week after it was first endorsed by the Council of Ministers (CoM).

On November 9, 2019, in its 75th regular session, the CoM approved a draft bill looking to target the spread of hate speech and fake news, to help deter irresponsible social media activism and disinformation that served as a catalyst for ethnic related violence in several parts of the country.

Presenting the draft bill before the House on Tuesday, Deputy Whip, Mesfin Chernet, said that the draft bill aims to fight against hate speech and disinformation which has become a threat to social interaction, political stability, and unity of the country.

According to him, the draft bill proposes an imprisonment of up to five years for individuals accused of disseminating hate speech and disinformation.

The draft bill has come amid concerns echoed by activists who have called on the government to take cautious considerations, not to use the new bill to stifle free speech.

While discussing on the provisions, MPs questioned whether the maximum prison term stated in the draft bill is sufficient enough to deter hate speech. Thus, they requested the relevant standing committee to consider the possibility of increasing the prison sentence higher than the five years proposed by the provision.

Different rights groups have said that the government is right to take action, but using the law to combat hate speech may not be the best approach. There are also groups who claim that the draft law has many shortcomings.

Going further they said that it is vaguely defined, lacks detail on how it will be enforced, and is unlikely to meet international standards. For instance, it criminalizes hate speech with fines or imprisonment - but fails to explain what constitutes as hate speech.

In addition, some experts argue that the latest draft bill does not clarify whether responsibility is limited to people who create content or whether it extends to those that publish and spread it. It does not distinguish between inaccurate information innocently shared and intentionally-spread misinformation.

Meanwhile, its requirement that media providers monitor, prevent, and remove hate speech and false information, leaves many questions unanswered.

After MPs held first hand discussions on some of the proposed provisions, the House has referred the draft bill to the Legal, Justice and Democracy Affairs Standing Committee.

As seen by The Reporter, in the draft bill, the effects of legislating against hate speech and false information can have unintended consequences, particularly if it criminalizes.

Limitations on hate speech and disinformation demand a subtle balance between two sets of values: the protection of open debate and legitimate free speech, and the obligation to prevent discrimination and attacks on vulnerable communities. Ethiopia's law as it currently stands does not strike this balance.