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U.N. expert urges Ethiopia to stop internet shutdowns, revise hate speech law

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By Reuters
U.N. expert urges Ethiopia to stop internet shutdowns, revise hate speech law
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waits for the arrival of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen before their meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo   -   Copyright  Tiksa Negeri(Reuters)
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ADDISABABA (Reuters) – A senior United Nations official urged Ethiopia on Monday to stop shutting off the internet without legal basis and revise a draft law meant to curb hate speech to ensure it protects freedom of speech.

Ethiopia’s only internet service provider, state-owned Ethio Telecom, has cut internet access multiple times this year without explanation, although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has eased free speech restrictions since taking office last year.

“The government continues to think that internet shutdowns are a tool they should use and I want to strongly urge them not to use them as tools and to commit not to using them,” David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told a news conference in Addis Ababa.

Kaye’s visit was the first to Ethiopia by a U.N. 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 has also freed political prisoners and journalists and unbanned opposition parties, although the new freedoms have coincided with rising ethnic violence that has forced nearly 3.5 million people from their homes in two years.

The internet was briefly off on Thursday, during Kaye’s one-week mission to the country. The government said the shutdown was meant 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 that 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 also said efforts to repeal an anti-terrorism law seemed to have stalled in parliament and that the government’s continued use of the repressive law could “erode public trust in the ongoing reform process”.

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by George Obulutsa and Maggie Fick/Mark Heinrich)