Ethiopians go to the polls this week-end amid concern by some activists that without a free media the parliamentary election cannot be free and fair. They say even though Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees press freedom, anti-terrorist laws and election rules seriously curtail the flow of information.
“The media in Ethiopia is not free at all,” said Tom Rhodes, the program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.
He said in Ethiopia any critical publication “broadcast or print is out of the question, and it appears the election coverage is going to be biased.”
The media as a fourth estate, he said, “has a stake within the governmental process, and it influences public opinion.
“When you take these factors into account, I can’t imagine how you can have really a free and fair election without an open media that is allowed to openly interview and encourage debate among the various candidates,” he said.
Rhodes attributed the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia to intimidation and harassment of the independent media, a factor, he said, that has led to a vacuum in critical reporting.
“In the broadcast media (radio and television), there is simply isn’t any critical or opposition, so you get only the state-run view of political events in the country,” he added.
Rhodes lamented the lack of moderate, unbiased, professional journalism in the country: “There is a gap in critical reporting. There are the pro-government publications and on the extreme end, the opposition commentary, which isn’t really helpful.”
He said CPJ has tried to advocate and consult with the government of Ethiopia and to publicize the organizations’ concerns on the lack of media freedom.
“We push for more press freedom within the country and help those journalists who feel they are threatened and intimidated by various actors within the country, so that they can have the courage and defense to continue reporting,” he said.
“We can all do something,” he said. “We can publicize the fact that we don’t feel the election coverage will be necessarily fair and advocate for more press freedom.