Ethiopia’s parliament has passed a law that punishes “hate speech” and “fake news”. However, rights groups say it undermines free speech months as it imposes heavy fines and long jail terms.

Nearly 300 legislators voted in favour of the bill, with 23 votes against it. The law defines hate speech as “any discourse that incites prejudice against individuals and groups based on nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities”.

The penalties for spreading hate speech include fines of up to $3100 and 2-year prison terms. However, if hate speech or disinformation results in “an attack on individuals or groups”, the jail sentence can be extended up to 5 years.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government defended the law, saying it is necessary because existing legal provisions did not address hate speech. Legislators said it will not affect citizens’ rights, but those who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.

“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.

Human Rights Watch has also warned the law could curtail freedom of expression: “Ethiopia should be removing legal provisions that restrict free expression, not adding more vague provisions that risk stifling critical public debate on important issues”, it said.