By Simegnish “Lily” Mengesha/CPJ Guest Blogger
Published on May 22, 2015 4:17 PM ET
On Sunday Ethiopians go to the polls in the country’s fifth general election since the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power more than 20 years ago. Citizens are expected to choose the right party to lead them for the next five years. To do so, they need to have a clear understanding of their country’s political, social, and economic situation. They need to know which parties have the candidates and policies best suited to their own hopes and aspirations. But in a country with limited independent media, many Ethiopians struggle to find the information needed to help them make informed decisions.
A number of human right reports showed 2014 as the most dangerous year for the Ethiopian press, with government attacks on the media starting a year before the election. It appeared that government forces were purposely clearing the media out of the way. Seventeen journalists are currently in prison, most of them facing terrorism charges, and more than 30 have been forced into exile, according to CPJ research. This makes Ethiopia the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea.
Five independent magazines and one weekly newspaper were charged last year with publishing false information, inciting violence, and undermining public confidence in the government, according to CPJ research. The charges highlighted the narrowed media space, and led to the closure of several more outlets out of fear that they may face the same fate.
Ethiopia is the fourth most censored country in the world, according to CPJ. Besides state-run publications, only a handful of privately owned publications remain in the country and, according to a couple of Ethiopian journalists I spoke to, they operate under heavy self-censorship. Because of financial constraints caused by paper and printing costs, nearly all independent publications circulate only in the capital, Addis Ababa. This leaves the majority of the population dependent on the state-run TV and radio stations.
Based on my own experiences, and that of fellow journalists in Ethiopia, who asked not to be named out of security concerns, journalists work in fear of the government’s reaction to what they say and write. They make sure no word they put down on paper and no word they speak will buy them a ticket to the prisons where their friends are held. Covering the election makes journalists feel even more unsafe. It exposes them to such levels of harassment that they even fear moving around the city alone, I was told.
Digital media is a new platform in Ethiopia. While Internet penetration remains under 2 per cent, according to Freedom House figures, the number of social media users has been growing rapidly. However, the arrest of the Zone 9 bloggers for their social media activity one year ago, served as a warning among the online community not to openly criticize the government, I was told.
Fear dominates not only journalists but also any citizen who is unhappy with the government and wishes to criticize its policies. After the 2005 election, which was comparatively open but, according to reports, ended with violence and killings, the government appears to have little tolerance for criticism. In the 2010 election five years later, that fear appeared to linger, with few reports of anyone saying they planned to vote for the opposition. This will be a challenge for local and international journalists covering the election this weekend. It will not be easy to find anyone willing to admit publicly that they voted against the ruling party.
The African Union (AU) will be the only international body monitoring the election, according to reports. Its purpose is to observe, collect and analyze data from the lead-up to the post-election period. In a statement, the AU said its observation will be in line with AU policy and other international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that its observers will remain independent and objective.
However, according to journalists I spoke to, the sole presence of the AU does not make Ethiopia’s press feel protected. Most said they believe the AU or ambassadors will reflect only what the ruling party wants them to say. Others said they do not think they will be able to get fair and balanced comments, even from independent bodies.
The press plays an important role in the electoral process. It provides a platform for political parties and candidates to present their manifestos. The press also allows citizens to express their opinions and needs, so that they can be a part of the democratic process. When such a platform is denied, citizens are left out of the process. This is not democracy.
This is the malady from which Ethiopia suffers. People are deprived of any explanation of their country’s situation, their government expects them to feed only on what they are given through state media. This makes citizens into mere spectators to the “development” about which the government proudly preaches, instead of making them an integral part of the process.
Simegnish “Lily” Mengesha is a journalist, media consultant, and translator, who has served most recently as director of the Ethiopian Environment Journalists Association. An outspoken advocate for freedom of expression, she has worked with foreign news outlets such as Wall Street Journal, Voice of America and the BBC. Mengesha is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.