Around the time of elections, a free press not only helps to keep voters informed regarding how and why they should vote and of the details of the political parties that are up for election, but it can also act as a gauge of democracy. The press can even have an impact on the outcome of elections. Ethiopia has insisted that its 24 May 2015 general election will be democratic, free and fair. However, reports from international and regional bodies show that media freedom in Ethiopia is being heavily restricted through censorship and harassment, raising concerns that the election is unlikely to be democratic.
Ethiopia has held regular elections since the overthrow of the Mengistu regime in 1991. Yet, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has gradually centralised its control since gaining 99.6% of parliamentary seats in 2010.(2) Freedom of the press is imperative in the process of political change because independent media can act as a watchdog, provide a voice for the people and support free and fair elections by making the process more transparent. To ensure that the elections are free and fair, and to set the standard for the next term of leadership, Ethiopia’s government must loosen its grip on independent media. Along with local activists, organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) should advocate for Ethiopia to be held accountable for its actions towards the media, to uphold constitutional rights and to adhere to the principles the country has signed its agreement to as a member of the AU.
The media and democracy
A substantive electoral process allows for the full, unrestricted participation of the people. Independent media is a critical gauge of citizen participation in an election because it provides a forum for critique, debate, testimonials and opinions. By fostering dialogue around an upcoming election, independent media can help to ensure that the election reflects the people’s decision. Independent media further supports the participation of the people by providing access to information on all of the candidates, parties, campaigns and voting processes so that voters are able to make an informed decision. A free press can also act as a watchdog, holding parties and politicians accountable for illegal or corrupt actions. When the media is repressed or gagged, citizen participation is hampered and electoral outcomes may not reflect the will of the people.
The degree of media restriction in a country therefore sheds light on the substantive quality of democracy as it illustrates the extent to which the country adheres to its constitution, protects its citizens and promotes access to information in an effort to ensure free and fair elections. In this sense, Ethiopia is not fully democratic. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are guaranteed rights in Ethiopia – in terms of the constitution; however, since the 2005 general election, the independent media has been systematically repressed.(3) The Ethiopian government uses various methods of harassment, including regulating publishers, restricting access to events, using threats and intimidation against journalists, and detaining journalists to restrict independent media in favour of state-controlled publications and broadcasts.(4) In recent months, at least 6 publications have closed, approximately 30 journalists have fled Ethiopia and remain in exile, and 6 bloggers and 3 journalists from social media activist group Zone 9 remain detained on terrorism charges. Worrying parallels are evident between the restrictions during the 2005 and 2010 elections and this year’s election, especially regarding press restrictions, which are currently tighter than in 2010.
Data source: ‘2014 Prison census: 221 journalists jailed worldwide’, CPJ-Committee to Protect Journalists
The poor state of press freedom in Ethiopia negates the possibility of the country holding truly democratic elections. In light of mounting restrictions on independent media and the repression of democratic and human rights of journalists, this election cannot be free and fair. As the head of the opposition Blue Party, Yilkal Getnet, so aptly stated, “This election is only ceremonial.”(5) The election is nothing more than a procedural show meant to give the impression of democratic rule and lend an air of legitimacy to the state.
Opportunities for change
Although Ethiopia holds regular elections, the number of opposition parties competing in each election has been substantially reduced and the EPRDF holds 99.6% of parliamentary seats, effectively making Ethiopia a one-party state. Opposition parties were encouraged to participate in the 2005 election and the media was uninhibited. Accounts in the media suggested that the EPRDF actually lost that election, but that they claimed victory before all of the votes were counted and subsequently jailed opposition leaders and journalists, which incited post-election violence. In 2010, the EPRDF won all but two parliamentary seats in the election and the media and international observers were denied access to the polls. As the May election nears, the EPRDF are again favoured to win.
To give the upcoming election a chance of supporting pro-democratic political change, press freedom will have to be protected in accordance with Ethiopia’s constitution. Ceasing censorship and harassment and allowing the press to report freely would be an important first step in this direction. The current state of media freedom portrays a grim outlook for swift transformative political change in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, local news outlets and journalists are trying to report on issues that oppose the EPRDF’s perspectives despite the hostile environment. In light of the threat to media freedom, and consequently to the potential for meaningful political change in the country, more must be done to help local news outlets and journalists in their endeavour. International organisations and governments need to support activists and civil-rights campaigners and put pressure on the Ethiopian government by advocating for a free media. As Ethiopia is a valued ally in the War on Terror, the United States, for example, surely cannot sit idly by while suppression of democratic and human rights of journalists and other citizens continues.
Some international pressure on Ethiopia’s government has begun to mount. The EU and the United Kingdom (UK) have already spoken out against Ethiopia’s continued restriction of press freedom, calling for an open space for debate ahead of the May election. Existing opposition parties are essential counterparts to international organisations in the drive for media freedom. Though Ethiopia has cracked down on local activist groups like the Zone 9 bloggers, the few remaining opposition parties to the EPRDF, like the Blue Party, continue to peacefully protest and advocate for civil rights.(6)
In addition to the work done by local organisations, the EU, UK and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, additional pressure from governments like the US could make a substantial difference towards loosening press restrictions in Ethiopia in time for the election. While advocacy from international and local organisations may not seem like enough action, it would place greater pressure on Ethiopia and put the EPRDF under scrutiny. As home to the AU, Ethiopia should be held as an example of democratic progress. This must be made clear by organisations like the AU and other governments by publically insisting that the Ethiopian government stop restrictions on the media as an important step towards holding free and fair elections and an example of upholding democratic values.
Ensuring press freedom in time for the spring election
The AU is an important source of hope for restoring media freedom. Article 27 of its Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance reads, “In order to advance political, economic, and social governance, State Parties shall commit themselves to... promoting freedom of expression, in particular freedom of the press and fostering a professional media.”(7) As international bodies like the UK government and the EU begin to take note of the abuses going on in Ethiopia, the AU needs to speak out and encourage its member states to uphold the Charter. Loosening the government’s grip on the media is not only critical for the election, but also for maintaining human rights and for setting a standard of accountability and transparency for future governments. Constitutional precedents, news outlets, journalists and activists within Ethiopia are in place to hold the government to using an independent media to promote free and fair elections. Now, these organisations and international organisations need to increase pressure on Ethiopia to act on this issue in time for the May election.
Written by Emma Hornsby (1)
(1) By Emma Hornsby. Contact Emma through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s South African office ( firstname.lastname@example.org). This paper was developed with the assistance of Mandy Noonan and Karin Alexander. Edited by Liezl Stretton. Web Publications Manager: Claire Furphy.
(2) Dufief, E., ‘Power and electoral politics in Ethiopia’, Democracy in Africa, 21 August 2014, http://democracyinafrica.org.
(3) For details see ‘Freedom of the Press: Ethiopia’, Freedom House, 2014, https://freedomhouse.org.
(4) ‘Journalism is not a crime’, Human Rights Watch, 22 January 2015, http://www.hrw.org.
(5) Ademo, M., ‘US official praises Ethiopian ‘democracy,’ rest of world begs to differ’, Al Jazeera America, 18 April 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com.
(6) Warner, G., ‘Ethiopia’s Blue Party tries to reacquaint nation with dissent’, National Public Radio, 10 March 2015, http://www.npr.org.
(7) ‘African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance’, African Union, http://www.au.int.