ADDIS ABABA - For years, the Ethiopian government has been accused of using its anti-terrorism law to crack down on internal political dissent. Now, bloggers and political activists worry freedom of expression could be limited even further by a proposed new law.
Critics of the new legislation, called the Computer Crime Proclamation, say it would widen the door for the Ethiopian government to punish individuals voicing their opinions on the Internet.government to punish individuals voicing their opinions on the Internet.
Daniel Berhane, a prominent blogger who also runs his own website, believes the provisions against cybercrime in the bill could be used against anyone expressing an opinion online.
“This computer crime proclamation denies me the defenses, the safeguards already provided in the criminal code and the mass media law," he said. "So it's simply more prohibitive than the existing laws and it does that with just one sentence.”
The new bill mostly focuses on cybercrime and security; but, the proclamation also allows the imprisonment for those who distribute mass emails and it gives the national intelligence service the power to conduct virtual investigations without approval from a judge.
Belayhun Yirga of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Justice said nothing will change for those who are expressing their views on the Internet.
“If that person is just explaining his opinions or his view, he will not be liable for crime; but, the target of this law is just on the intention of the activity of the people concerning defamation," he said. "If their purpose and general goal is for defaming, they will be liable because defamation, it is a crime."
Ethiopia is often criticized for detaining, arresting and imprisoning individuals who voice their opinions online.
Journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega is currently serving an 18-year sentence. A group of young bloggers known as Zone 9 was detained for over a year.
And Yonathan Tesfaye, the spokesperson of an opposition group, has been in detention for nearly six months over comments he made on Facebook.
Haben Fecadu of human rights group Amnesty International says the Ethiopian government is currently using the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to crack down on criticism.
“The precedent set by Yonathan’s charges are disturbing because it allows for the government to go after someone for expressing their views over social media," he said. "Yonathan was also charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and evidence against him was allowed to be presented and heard by the court without him knowing what that evidence was.”
The new Computer Crime Proclamation likely will be enacted in the next few weeks.