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News Analysis: Ministry tells police, state & fed law enforcement agencies to step up work to bring hate speech, disinformation perpetrators to court

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Awel Sultan; Picture: EPA

Addis Abeba – The Ministry of Justice said that law enforcement institutions including the police, regional state and federal justice institutions should step up efforts to control the spread of false information and hate speech in Ethiopia by bringing perpetrators to the law.

Awel Sultan, Public Relations and Communication Director of the Ministry of Justice, is quoted by state owned EPA that the prevention of the spread of false information and hate speech in Ethiopia was not being implemented at the scale that was needed.

Awol blamed that currently most of the media that are based abroad and those in the country but are opening fake accounts on social media were spreading messages that could cause conflict between nations and different religions but no action is being taken

Awel said that from now on, the police should already start investigating those who spread false information until they met the criminal requirements set out in the proclamation, adding that communities can tip, and that prosecutors are responsible for leading and investigating criminal activities; the police can start criminal investigations during the process and take the cases to a court of law in the event of the presence of a thorough investigation. Awel added that this practice will be effectively implemented.

Because such a process has not been initiated and implemented by law enforcement institutions, people were veering off the line and were engaged in disseminating false information to a certain degree, he said, and added that there were lots of works done to educate and inform the public about Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation.

Awol blamed that currently most of the media that are based abroad and those in the country but are opening fake “accounts” on social media were spreading messages that could cause conflict between nations and different religions but no action is being taken.

The proclamation’s main purpose was to prevent incitement among different people living in harmony with one another, between nations, and religions. Although it is a proclamation designed to take action against those who commit such incitements, in reality, there are a lot of violations of this law on Facebook and other social media platforms.

Accordingly, the police, regional states and federal justice and law enforcement institutions will start work to bring to justice those who are engaged in committing such crimes, and that investigations will be intensified through steps to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Awel said the Ministry of Justice has done a lot of work since the law was enacted and the work was mainly focused on sympathy or simply passing the issue, as well as by focusing on communications to create community awareness and understanding and enable communities to hand over perpetrators. Due to that many people, especially those close to the media, are aware that a proclamation has been enacted to prevent hate speech and the spread of false information.

To that end, there is some change and improvement around the subject, he said, and added that the fact that people with real accounts on social media are becoming more and more careful about the information they transmit was a testament to the work done to create awareness on the law. Now, those who trespass the law and perpetrate this crime are not doing it out of ignorance, but deliberately to cause unrest in the community, Awel said.

Background

On 13 February 2020 the Ethiopian parliament approved the hate speech and disinformation prevention and suppression law with a majority vote, 23 against and 2 abstentions. and on 23 March the same, the law was gazetted as Proclamation No. 1185 “Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation.”

The enactment of the law came two years after the Attorney General’s office first announced that the office was finalizing preparations to enact the proclamation. The announcement in 2018 came in the midst of the worst communal violence that gripped the county following to ascent to office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Many blamed the the violence on hate speech and disinformation campaign on social media.

However, when the final version of the Proclamation was enacted, it had come under criticism from global press freedom and human rights defenders for various reasons including being vague on its classification of “hate speech”, or being a flawed legislation. “Flawed legislation like this often emerges from a flawed process,” Access Now, an organization that “defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world”, said. “Legislation that seeks to regulate people’s free expression online should be based on evidence. In this case, the legislation ought to have been grounded in research on the real-world impact of harmful content online and how organized disinformation can influence discourse, as well as a consideration of whether existing provisions in the criminal code address the root causes. Instead of undertaking or relying on such research, it appears the government has made online hate speech an easy scapegoat for violence that may have deeper causes, while pushing through new legislation that increases its power to censor.”

ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organization, said that its analysis of the proclamation found that it has “failed to comply with international human rights standards as it imposed criminal sanctions on anyone that published, disseminated, or even possessed content falling under extremely broad definitions of “hate speech” and “false information.” ”

Similar concerns were raised by Human Right Watch (HRW) way before the draft proclamation was approved, which said that the “use of hate speech laws around the world shows that authorities have often abused them for political purposes.” HRW recommended that “the Ethiopian government has a range of tools at its disposal to counter hate speech that do not entail criminalizing protected speech. It can start by publicly condemning speech that fuels ethnic tensions and ensuring that government officials promote dialogue that fosters tolerance.”

A host of local and international advocates of freedom of the press, including a UN team of experts, the first mission to Ethiopia by a mandate-holder of the United Nations (UN) Special Procedures since 2006, have also expressed serious reservations on the excesses of the proclamation to curtail free speech and freedom of the press. AS



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