Ethiopia’s parliament passed a law on Thursday imposing jail terms for people whose internet posts stir unrest, a move government says is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections but which the UN says will stifle free speech.
Ethiopia, for decades one of the most tightly controlled states in Africa, has undergone major political change since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office two years ago.
Even as Abiy freed political prisoners and journalists and lifted a ban on opposition parties, authorities struggled to contain ethnic violence. An election this year is seen as the biggest test yet of his ambitious political reforms.
The new law permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,000) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
Some 297 lawmakers present voted in favour of the bill while 23 opposed.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” lawmaker Abebe Godebo said. “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help balance those diversities.”
Several lawmakers who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his reconciliation with Ethiopia’s neighbour and longtime foe Eritrea, pledged this year’s election will be free and fair. The nation of 108 million people regularly held elections since 1995, but only one, in 2005, was competitive.
The law was first endorsed by Abiy’s cabinet in November. At the time, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression urged authorities to reconsider it, warning it would worsen already high ethnic tensions and fuel violence.
International rights groups say it creates a legal means for government to muzzle opponents.
“Politicians, activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or be considered false information,” said Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle.