October 13, 2020

Policing Social Media: Analyzing Ethiopia’s controversial Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation

NewsCurrent Affairs

The article by David Gilbert on Vice News titled Hate Speech on Facebook Is Pushing Ethiopia…

The article by David Gilbert on Vice News titled Hate Speech on Facebook Is Pushing Ethiopia Dangerously Close to a Genocide is one of many literary works that are trying to highlight the dangers of misinformation, incitement of violence and the role of social media platforms in Ethiopia. From inaccurate pictures aimed at misinformation to messages of hate directed at specific ethnic and religious groups, social media has contributed to much of Ethiopia’s pain in the past few months. Though not the source of it, has become a tool that has played and continues to play a significant role in the dissemination of information that has led to the death, displacement and physical harm of Ethiopians in different cities across the nation.

The legal battle against hate speech and misinformation in Ethiopia kicked off in March 2020 with the adoption of the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation. The proclamation has thus far been met with mixed responses. While the intentions behind the adoption of the proclamation was hailed by many, its broad definitions and the threat it poses for rights such as freedom of expression and speech. The necessity of policing hate speech and disinformation is not contested. The manner in which it is done requires attention so as to guarantee that rights are respected in due course. Some of the common criticisms include broad definition of key legal terms, disproportionate punishments based on number of followers and the onerous duty of social media users to take down content in a prescribed amount of time.

In her article for Access Now - an institution devoted to the protection of digital rights across the world - Berhan Taye voiced similar concerns when it comes to the above proclamation. At the end of her nuanced article, Birhan laid down the determinants she believes will determine the effects of the proclamation on human rights. In doing so, one of the key factors identified by the author was the approach that will be taken by the Attorney General’s Office in the implementation of the proclamation. 

On October 9, 2020 as the Prosecutor of the Directorate of Awareness Education and Training Yesewzer Abebe said that the improper use of social media will result in legal repercussions amounting to upto 50,000 ETB as well as upto five years in prison in circumstances that result in harm following a particular social media post or a series thereof. In line with the above announcement, the following article will explore the policing of social media use vis a vis its implications with the observation of key human rights principles in Ethiopia. 

The not so complementary relationship between oppressive legislations and human rights principles is a strong one in Ethiopia. The post 2005 election legislations that were and are currently being revised by the current administration are a good example for this. With proclamations such as the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation, there were several legislations used as tools of crack down on the Ethiopian civic space by the previous and at times current governments. The proclamations were used in high profile cases against opposition leaders, journalists and other civic society actors since their adoption. Is the fate of the newest proclamation the same?

Fears of the proclamation giving the government onerous power over individuals followed the announcement by the Attorney General’s Office last Friday, as the subjects of the law - i.e. Ethiopians on social media - deliberated on the matter on different social media outlets. Replying to Addis Zeybe’s tweet about the statement from the Attorney General’s Office, several Ethiopians shared their views on the term “improper use of social media”, most of which shared concerns regarding the broad definition of the term.


Neftalem Fikre, an Ethiopian entrepreneur and innovator, replied to the announcement with a simple question. Neftalem asked  “To whose definition of proper?” which is the theme of most of the comments and queries that followed. Another user echoed the concerns of Niftalem. Her concerns were more specific than Niftalem’s as she asked whether the choice to use a term as vague as “improper use” comparing the proclamation to the terrorism proclamation that landed many in jail, including the online activists known as “the Zone Niners”. Other comments agreed with the direction chosen by the office to police social media use. An example is T. Asfaw’s comment. She says “it's about time” highlighting the necessity of such a law that includes a set of consequences for whenever social media misuse occurs. But, others like Hilal believe it’s too late as social media misuse has already caused too much harm causing ethnic tensions to be more deep rooted than before. 


Yohannes Eneyew - a former lecturer of law at Bahir Dar University and a PHD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia - does not agree with the assessment that the country needs such a stringent law. It is not social media per se that has brought many challenges. Rather it is the ethnic form of federation that created multi-layered problems in the countrysaid Yohannes voicing his concern that the law does not address the root causes of incidents of violence across the country as well other political gdilemmas the country finds itself in. However - Yohannes continues - there is a justified need for the government to create partnerships with social media companies and moderate social media content because it is an issue worth the government’s attention. 

Awol Sultan - the Head of the Attorney General’s Press Secretariat Office - does not agree with the assessment of Yohannes. Explaining to Addis Zeybe why the proclamation is necessary, Awol said “There are posts that are based on the ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds of people that affect the dignity of certain groups and lead to incidents of intercommunal violence.” highlighting the severity of the issue of hate speech in Ethiopia at the moment. To Awol, that is where it all starts, incitement. “And the country did not have any legal provisions or a proclamation that addressed the issue.” said Awol, also telling Addis Zeybe that the Attorney General’s office conducted consultations with different stakeholders in eight cities located in six regional states prior to the submission of the draft proclamation for the consideration of the House of Peoples’ Representatives. 

The necessity of moderating social media content has become more and more apparent with the growth of social media globally and the emergence of new trends in the norms surrounding the use of social media. According to an article by David Mayor and Bruna Martins dos Santos on the Brookings Institute - a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC - the moderation of social media content is a global norm highly practised in countries including but not limited to India, Australia, Germany and France. However, much of the approach is related to the liability of social media platforms as opposed to policing citizens.

“What, who, when and how”: the questions around the term “improper use of social media”

The decision by the AG in the drafting of the proclamation to make the term “improper use of social media” brings tremendous legal and human rights implications according to Yohannes. To him the use of the term is gravely ambiguous and vague, leading to several legal and political implications in the future. This is further compounded by the duty of the government under the constitution, human rights instruments and the criminal code of Ethiopia to clearly specify and give a clear and concise definition of the crime before prescribing it as illegal according to Yohannes who said “... the principle of legality under the Criminal code clearly states that the government should clearly define which acts are wrong and which acts are right. As such, the generic expression doesn't fulfil the legality requirement both under the Criminal Code and international human rights law.

The attorney general’s office has an answer to this concern. Awol says the tendency to consider freedom of expression and other relevant rights as a green light to post anything - regardless if it is derogatory, insightful or undignifying -  is prevalent in the country, despite being a wrong one. The interpretation of the term “improper use of social media” is here to make sure that this norm does not inform the use of social media amongst Ethiopians. In this regard, Amha said “Improper use of social media means the dissemination of information that attacks the dignity of citizens, incites violence and leads to the destruction of peace and security in the country.” holding firm that the term is not vague. 

Despite this narrative, however, according to the UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Broadly worded restrictive laws on “extremism”, blasphemy, defamation, “offensive” speech, “false news” and “propaganda” often serve as pretexts for demanding that companies suppress legitimate discourse”. 

Anti-terrorism proclamation like implementation

Awol conceded to the narrative that the implementation of the above proclamation requires caution so as to guarantee it does not impede rights and liberties guaranteed in the constitution. “There have been analogies with the anti-terrorism proclamation but this narrative is misplaced when it comes to the Hate Speech proclamation.” said Amha, also highlighting that the proclamation was introduced and will be implemented to protect citizens from online hate speech and guarantee the country does not devolve into violence. “The proclamation is here to administer everyone and hold anyone that commits the crime” said Amha stressing that the proclamation was adopted to protect the dignity of Ethiopians on social media as well as guarantee the peace and security of the country. 

However, to Yohannes this is far from the reality as he describes the law as draconian and having a similar approach with Anti-terrorism proclamation. “Both laws at face value look draconian and vaguely formulated. So, if the government keeps applying this law as used in Anti-terror law, then the narrative will be realistic since laws were used to eliminate genuine political foes in political space.” said Yohannes highlighting the door the proclamation opens to crack down on civic space. However, Yohannes stressed the importance of the approach that will be taken by the Attorney General’s Office in the implementation of the proclamation. 

Awol has an answer to this. He asserts that even though due to the brevity of the proclamation itself a directive will not be issued to assist its implementation, several initiatives aimed at guaranteeing the above assessment is not a reality. Awol said “We are preparing to roll out several programs aimed at creating awareness in both key actors in the justice system as well as the general public.” telling Addis Zeybe about the plans by the Attorney General’s office to increase familiarity of lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police officers and other relevant government bodies in collaboration with the media and other means. Other initiatives include research on a strategy to implement the proclamation in a conducive manner that does not impede on human rights, according to Awol.