Ethiopian polls carry lessons from past for journalists now

by Les Neuhaus
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Covering Ethiopia isn’t easy for any journalist working in the Horn of Africa country. For years it has been ranked as one of the worst offenders for press freedom in the world and in April the Committee to Protect Journalists placed it fourth on their annual list of the 10-most censored countries, right after Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

With general elections coming on May 24, Western and local media in country are remaining vigil. Many of the country’s most notable and prominent journalists have been locked up on what human-rights supporters have called fabricated terrorism and treason charges, with the government using a 2009 anti-terror law to intimidate the press. Others have fled the country, changing the landscape of how large-scale events like national elections are covered in Ethiopia.

The disputed 2005 elections, marred by the deaths of 193 people at the hands of state security forces, and the arrests of tens of thousands of citizens cast a dark shadow over Ethiopia. By the 2010 polls, the ruling political party – Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – consolidated their power to win 99.6 percent of the vote, which the Geneva-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said was marked by a government that “pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters.”

Only one opposition member won a seat in parliament in 2010. 

Ethiopian elections: free and fair?

Simegnish Lily Yekoye, a veteran Ethiopian reporter who has written for several international publications, is in the U.S. working for the Washington, D.C.-based National Endowment for Democracy after being forced to flee her country last July.

“In 2005, there were long lines – people waiting for hours to cast their vote because they thought a real change might happen,” Yekoye said by telephone on Friday from New York. “There was a lot of optimism then. But in the 2010 elections, there was no optimism. Everything was quiet and there were no long lines to vote.”

She doesn’t think 2015 will be different from 2010.

Fresh reports in the last two weeks that opposition representatives are being harassed are not helping the outlook for journalists. William Davison, an English reporter who lives in and reports from Ethiopia for Bloomberg News primarily, said the election will favor the EPRDF.

“I think the EPRDF’s control of all tiers of administration and the evidence and suspicion of a lack of autonomy among key government institutions … makes life tough for the opposition,” Davison, who has lived in Ethiopia since 2008, said by Facebook from Addis Ababa on Saturday. “It’s apparent that the EPRDF’s hold over government workers allows it to mobilize efficiently … The opposition also seems short of ideas, energy, personalities, organizational skills, and resources, so it looks like it’s going to be a very one-sided election.”

Sue Valentine, Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the government’s influence on the media has a direct impact on the elections.

“It is difficult to imagine how Ethiopian citizens will be able to make an informed choice … when they have been unable to access and engage with news and opinions from a variety of critical and independent sources,” she told IJNet on Monday via email from New York.

Covering the 2015 polls

Ethiopia is the second-most populated country on the African continent, with roughly 94 million people, according to the World Bank (2013 figures). There are a lot of things to consider when trying to get out and cover an election that big on your own or with a team.

Keeping in mind who you approach is key and Ethiopians are notoriously reserved when they're asked for a statement or remark.

“I will try to get comments from those who vote for and against the ruling party [and] why they did so,” one Ethiopian reporter, who has worked for more than a decade as a journalist in his country and also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said on Monday. “The problem is it will be difficult to get someone who vote[d] for [the] opposition and [will be] willing to comment [to the] media [without] fearing the ruling party supporters' direct or indirect attack … afterwards, sooner or later.”

Getting out of the capital is important, as reporters can’t let it be the gauge for the rest of the country, according to Davison, who echoed some of what the Ethiopian reporters said.

“My idea for the election is to speak to as many non-politicians as possible,” he said. “I am fairly familiar with the mantras of the EPRDF and the opposition, however, you can always learn more from the citizens. Addis is hugely important, but also completely unrepresentative of the country, so I don’t feel like I’m doing a thorough job unless I get out of the capital as much as I can,” he added.

Technologies available

Smartphones, apps and social media are all reported to be popular among journalists in Addis Ababa. Androids and iPhones are prevalent. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are also used by the media.

“Both Facebook and Twitter seem to be a relatively ‘free’ space in Ethiopia – meaning that Ethiopians seem somewhat liberated to speak their minds more frequently on those platforms,” Davison also said.

In the past, Ethiopia has blocked some websites, including opposition proxy or diaspora sites. However, social media sites appear to be accessible to anyone at Internet cafes through the state-run telecom Internet system, Davison and the Ethiopian reporters confirmed.

“The best Internet network in Addis right now is 3G, which you can get on mobile or through USB dongle,” Davison said. “It’s quick, but still not up to international standards, as it’s very expensive and you have a restrictive download limit per month on the pre-paid option.”

Two Ethiopian journalists told IJNet they would not be using social media at all during the elections for fear of being singled out by the government.

Advice for covering Ethiopia

What should you expect if you are traveling to Ethiopia for the elections?

“Covering Ethiopia regularly involves keeping an open-mind and continuing to batter away doggedly at issues, and people of interest,” Davison said. “Logistics, like the telecoms and bureaucracy, are tricky, so expect to be frustrated frequently.”

Consider other things, recommended the Ethiopian journalist with more than a decade’s experience under his belt: “When it comes to events like elections … it will be very risky to try moving alone for reporting.”

And finally, Ethiopia’s global status on censure does precede itself.

As one Ethiopian reporter, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity and has been a journalist since 2010 put it, the country doesn’t “have a good reputation regarding media activity and political activity. So if anyone want[s] to come to Ethiopia for media business, [they] should be aware of the history and the existing fact of the country’s political situation.”

Image of 2010 elections in Ethiopia CC-licensed on Flickr via BBC World Service