A senior United Nations official urged Ethiopia to stop shutting the internet without legal basis and revise a draft law curbing hate speech to ensure freedom of speech is protected.
Ethiopia’s only internet service provider, state-owned Ethio Telecom, cut access multiple times this year without explanation. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed eased free speech restrictions since taking office .
“Government continues to think internet shutdowns are a tool they should use and I strongly urge them not to use them as tools and commit not to using them,” David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told a news conference in Addis Ababa.
Kaye’s visit was the first to Ethiopia by a UN free speech expert in 10 years. Ethiopia was previously one of Africa’s most tightly controlled nations.
Abiy took office last year and won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his peacemaking efforts with neighbouring Eritrea. He freed political prisoners and journalists and unbanned opposition parties. The new freedoms coincided with rising ethnic violence that forced 3m5 million people from their homes in two years.
The internet was briefly off last Thursday, during Kaye’s week-long mission to the country. Government said the shutdown was to contain the effects of a cyber-attack targeting financial institutions.
Kaye said officials were unable to give a legal basis for Internet shutdowns though “some continued to justify it.”
He also asked authorities to reconsider a draft hate speech law he said would worsen already high ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence.
Cabinet approved the law last month to combat what it called fake news and hate speech ahead of elections scheduled for May 2020. Parliament still has to ratify the draft law.
Kaye said efforts to repeal an anti-terrorism law seemed to have stalled in parliament and government’s continued use of the repressive law could “erode public trust in the ongoing reform process”.