The ruling Revolutionary Democrats have crafted the first ever computer crime law and tabled it to the federal parliament, fully controlled by themselves and their affiliates. Intended to manage the ever-growing damage computer crime is causing to the economy, directly and indirectly, the 16-paged draft proclamation outlines the punishment related to cyber and computer crimes.
What remains controversial, however, is the way the draft proclamation treats online expressions. Under Article 14, it states, “whosoever intentionally disseminates through a computer system any written, video, audio or any other picture that incites fear, violence, chaos or conflict among people shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment not exceeding three years.”
Although the explanatory note attached has a positive tone, including assuring that only “deliberate” acts are going to be punished, this specific provision has concerned the nascent cyber community of the nation.
For many of the critics of the law, the provision gives the state legal grounds to interpret any dissenting expression on the cyber space as inciting violence or chaos. Hence, the argument goes, the law would be just another means to suppress dissent.
Some even compared the draft legislation with that of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. This infamous law, widely criticized for giving the executive the power to quash political opposition, inhibits dissent by way of associating it with the intent to terrorise the public. International organisations, including the United Nations, have repeatedly voiced their concern on how the law is being used to jail critical journalists, activists, bloggers, opposition political figures and dissenters within the ruling coalition. It has been victimizing the wrong people. Of course, at the centre of the whole debate on the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is the character of the state under the leadership of the Revolutionary Democrats. With the state becoming increasingly intolerant of opposing views, not to mention its desire to control political and economic narratives, the provisions of the law are said to serve the intent of the state. Certainly, the reality could not have been similar had the state been democratic, learning and flexible.
Hence, it would not be misguided to associate the latest concern of citizens with their understanding of the nature of the state. By way of sharing their fear, most Ethiopian netizens, as citizens active in the cyber space are often dubbed, are questioning the real intent of the state. They are of the opinion that, by way of including this provision in the law, the state is trying to infuse fear within the active community of netizens and punish those who disagree with the way it does business.
Sure, Ethiopia needs a computer crime law. Justifying this is the fast digitalisation of public and private services, huge public investment in information technology infrastructure backbone and the growing connectivity of Ethiopians. Each of these aspects brings about its own vulnerability.
At an individual level, the risk has to do with personal data, identity and access. Crime against these crucial aspects of individual privacy would do considerable damage to citizens. The damage could vary from economic losses to social marginalization.
At firm level, the risk has to do with company data, client information, products, intellectual property, competitiveness and relationships. So much as the profitability of businesses sits on these essential aspects, crime against companies would have huge economic implications for the corporate world.
Worse yet is the national risk. Crimes against national cyber systems and infrastructure pose risk against essential national interests, including military information, financial systems and public data systems.
Recent breaches of computer systems in the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea show that countries need strong cybercrime laws. Latest studies show that the global average cost of cybercrimes to companies stands at 7.7 million dollars. The aggregate global cost of cybercrime is projected to reach two trillion dollars in 2019. Having or not having a cybercrime law is, therefore, not debatable – at this stage of globalisation, the need is self-evident.
What is debatable, therefore, is how the state proposes to enforce the law and hence, the structural provisions of the law. True, as cyberspace is a global platform, no one country controls it. There are no consensual standards that users abide by. Much of what happens in the space is defined by the ethical lines of users or the communities in which they are members. Countries, therefore, can control only social ills that originate in their jurisdiction. Of course, collaboration is possible through legal harmonisation and double criminality agreements.
If one is to take the experience of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, then, the fear reverberating within the cyber community of the country is justified. There is a high probability for the state to use this law to suppress legitimate dissent expressed in the cyber space. And the victims would be the wrong people.
But there may be a political return to the incumbent in it. It could continue to lead without opposition and sell its narrative without any competing narrative. Yet, its impact is nothing but damaging in the view of the overall democratic progression of the country.
Be it in the cyber space or in the mainstream political space, having a vibrant market of competing ideas, narratives and perspectives is essential for democratic development. Ethiopia cannot have democracy without a political space capable of entertaining all available ideas. And it cannot be different with the emerging cyber space of the nation.
Taking into account the legitimate concerns of citizens, therefore, Members of Parliament (MPs) ought to review the law at their table in a way that specifies the details of expression in cyber space to distinguish what is harmful and warranting punishment. This entails avoiding the rather gross categorization of ‘inciting’ expressions for which the law provides and putting in place specificities. The line between what has to be punished and what should not has to be very clear.
But the fundamental shift that ought to come relates to the nature of the state. Under the custodianship of the ruling EPRDFites, the state has to grow beyond its long overdue culture of suppressing dissent and alternative views. It has to be ready to live up to the demands of citizens. It is, by no means, possible to put all the 91 million people of the nation under a singular line of Development State theory. Variations and differences have to be encouraged, entertained and protected.
Much is also expected from the judiciary. Even when the state uses legal instruments, such as the Computer Crime Proclamation, to accuse opponents, the judiciary has to put the bar high on it, in terms of evidence- based justice. Be it in preliminary evidence or substantial evidence, the state ought to be forced to prove its case well. It should not be allowed to get away with unsubstantiated claims of crime, intent to do crime or deduction to higher cause. The responsibility of raising the standard high lies in the hands of the judiciary.
Be it to the judiciary or the executive, however, the whole issue is about maintaining credibility in the eyes of citizens. Credible institutions live within their limits, dispose their responsibility effectively and give priority to public interest. No doubt that free expression is of vital public interest that both the executive and the judiciary ought to stand for.
Reviewing the new Cyber Crime Proclamation in line with the public interest is timely. And so is ensuring its effective enforcement.
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