News: Wolaita zone prosecutor indicts prominent scholar Asefa Wodajo with ‘spreading hate speech, disinformation’

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Asefa Wodajo

By Biruk Alemu @ Birukalemu21

Addis Abeba: The public prosecutor of Sodo city, the capital of Wolaita zone in Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) regional states, has charged former Assistant Professor of Dilla University, Asefa Wodajo, who is also a Central Committee member of the opposition party, Wolaita National Movement (WNM) , with trespassing proclamation 1185/2012, under “Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation.” The prosecutor indicted the defendant for allegedly violating articles 4, 5 and 7(4) of the proclamation.

Article 4, “Prohibition of Hate Speech” which states: “Any person disseminating hate speech by means of broadcasting, print or social media using text, image,audio or video is prohibited,” and article 5, “Prohibition of Disseminating Disinformation” which states: “Disseminating of any disinformation on public meeting by means of broadcasting, print or social media using text, image, audio or video is a prohibited act.”

Article 7/4 of the proclamation details that “if the offense of hate speech or disinformation offense has been committed through a social media account having more than 5,000 followers or through a broadcast service or print media, the person responsible for the act shall be punished with simple imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine not exceeding 100,000 birr.”

The details of the charges brought forward by Prosecutor Teshome Temamo Choramo, reads that the defendant used his Facebook page, Asefa Oyato Wodajo, where he has more than five thousand followers, to spread “false news and hate speech” including by utilizing videos to incite conflict and chaos. The charge further said the defendant has used his Facebook page to allegedly accuse the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of destroying multi-nationalism, intending to crown Menilik and erect his statue; of being a government that came from the Oromo but crushing the Oromo. It also accused the defendant of dismissing the government as one that doesn’t represent the Ethiopian people, among others.

Mentewab Gebreselaslsie, the defendant’s wife, told Addis Standard that the prosecutor cited Asefa’s Facebook posts in retrospect from November 2019, but filed the charges under the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation, which was promulgated in March 2020.

Asefa Wodajo appeared in a local court, on 19 August, according to the his wife, Mentewab said. During the hearing, Asefa asked to be released on bail rights to attend hearing stating that his “family is facing extreme difficulties”. The prosecutor objected to the request from the defendant asked for 14 more days of investigation; the court however granted five days and adjourned the next hearing until 24 August.

Addis Standard reported the arrest of Asefa by security forces in Sodo city, the capital of Wolaita zoneon on 07 August. Asafa has been one of dozens of individuals to have spent months in detention until recently. The Wolaita zone has been the epicenter of persistent tension between security forces and civilians following the zonal request for statehood by the Wolaita zonal council. Opposition party members, journalists, civil servants and activists have been in and out of police detention in the last two years.

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.”

In April this year, 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, said that the prevention of the spread of false information and hate speech in Ethiopia was not being implemented at the scale that was needed. AS




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