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Pressure on media heightened in weeks before elections

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Nairobi, May 24, 2010 - Ethiopian government and ruling party officials intimidated voters and unlawfully restricted the media ahead of the May 23, 2010 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

In assessing the polls, international election observers should address the repressive legal and administrative measures that the Ethiopian ruling party used to restrict freedom of expression during the election campaign, Human Rights Watch said.

"Behind an orderly façade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it."

In the weeks leading up to the polls, Human Rights Watch documented new methods used by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to intimidate voters in the capital, Addis Ababa, apparently because of government concerns of a low electoral turnout. During April and May, officials and militia (known as tataqi in Amharic) from the local administration went house to house telling citizens to register to vote and to vote for the ruling party or face reprisals from local party officials such as bureaucratic harassment or even losing their homes or jobs.

The May poll was the first national parliamentary election in Ethiopia since the government violently suppressed post-election protests in 2005; almost 200 people, including several police officers, died after the 2005 poll and tens of thousands of people were arrested, including opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists.

In a March 2010 report, "'One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure': Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia," Human Rights Watch described the complex and multi-faceted way in which the government has sought since 2005 to silence dissent, restrict the media and independent civil society, and leverage government resources such as civil service jobs, loans, food assistance and educational opportunities to encourage citizens to join the ruling party or leave the opposition.

The government's efforts to ensure the election outcome continued right up to polling day in Addis Ababa, according to Human Rights Watch's research in different areas of the capital, including in Merkato, Piazza, Wollo Sefer, Meskel Flower, Aya Ulet, Kera, Gotera, Hayat, Kotebe-CMC and Bole neighborhoods.

"Intimidation to register and to vote for the ruling party is everywhere," a resident of Addis Ababa told Human Rights Watch. "If the local administration is against you, they'll be after you forever. They can come and round you up at will."

Residents of Addis Ababa described numerous forms of intimidation in Addis Ababa in recent weeks.

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Pressure on the Media and Foreign Diplomats

Simultaneous with the increased pressure on voters, in the weeks before the polls the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi acted to restrict electoral scrutiny by independent media and foreign diplomats.

The government issued several codes of conduct covering media and diplomatic activity. Initial drafts of the media regulation restricted foreign and local journalists from even speaking to anyone involved in the election process, including voters on election day, in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Several journalists in different countries told Human Rights Watch that when they applied for media visas to cover the elections, they were extensively questioned by Ethiopian embassy diplomats.

The government told Embassy staff they needed travel permits for any movement outside of Addis Ababa between May 10 to June 20.

"The government has used a variety of methods to strong-arm voters and try to hide the truth from journalists and diplomats," said Peligal. "Donor governments need to show that they recognize that these polls were multi-party theater staged by a single-party state."

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Read the full press release

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