Ethiopia’s parliament passed a law on Thursday imposing jail terms for people whose internet posts stir unrest, a move the government says is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections, but which the United Nations says will stifle free speech.
Ethiopia, for decades one of the most tightly controlled states in Africa, has undergone huge political change since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office two years ago.
But even as Abiy has freed political prisoners and journalists and lifted a ban on opposition parties, the authorities have struggled to contain a surge in ethnic violence. An election this year is seen as the biggest test yet of whether his ambitious political reforms can stick.
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 that are deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
Some 297 lawmakers who were present in the chamber voted in favour of the bill while just 23 were opposed.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” lawmaker Abebe Godebo said. “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
Several of the 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, has pledged that this year’s election will be free and fair. The nation of 108 million people has 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 U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression urged authorities to reconsider it, warning it would worsen already high ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence.
International rights groups say it creates a legal means for the government to muzzle opponents.
“Politicians or activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid that their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or can be considered as false information,” said Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle.