INTERNET POSTS THAT CAUSE UNREST, now attract jail terms in Ethiopia. The country’s parliament, Thursday, passed a law to that effect. It is a move by government to prevent violence ahead of elections in the country. But the United Nations said such a law would stifle free speech. And International rights groups, also, said it could be legal means for government to muzzle opponents.
Up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr, equivalent of $3,000, and imprisonment for up to five years, await any one who shares or creates social media posts deemed to have result in violence or disturbance to public order. Some 297 lawmakers who were present in the chamber voted in favour of the bill, while 23 were opposed to the new law.
Ethiopia has undergone significant political reforms since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, assumed office two years ago. He freed political prisoners and journalists, and lifted ban on opposition parties. But the authorities have been struggling to contain surge in ethnic violence.
Ethiopia is scheduled to hold election this year. It will be a big test whether Prime Minister Abiy’s ambitious political reforms will be sustained. Ethiopia, for decades, has been one of the most tightly controlled states in Africa.
The lawmakers who opposed the bill said it violates constitutionally guaranteed free speech. A lawmaker who backed the law, Abebe Godebo said “Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation. The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
Prime Minister Abiy won Nobel Peace Prize, last year, for reconciling Ethiopia with its neighbours. The country’s long-time antagonist and neighbour to the south, Eritrea, has pledged to support Ethiopia to achieve free and fair elections this year. Ethiopia has a population of 108 million people. It has held regular elections since 1995. But only 2005 election was competitive.
The internet posts law was first endorsed by Abiy’s cabinet in November 2019. The UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression, at that time, urged the authorities to reconsider enacting the law. It warned that the law would worsen the already high ethnic tensions, and possibly fuel further violence.