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Independent media voices absent in election coverage

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 26 May 2010 - Ethiopia's electoral board said on Tuesday that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and allied parties had won a Sunday election by a landslide.

European Union chief election observer Thijs Berman praised the polling for being peaceful and orderly, but noted that there was an "uneven playing field," according to news reports.

The run-up to the vote, and the voting process itself, were characterised by the absence of a free, independent media.

Observers reported the harassment and intimidation both of voters and of journalists in the run-up to the election. The Ethiopian police, and an opposition party, said two opposition members had been shot dead by the police after the election, news reports said.

Against this backdrop, the International Press Institute (IPI) today called on any future government to relax its control of the media.

"No free and fair elections can be held in the absence of a vibrant and free media, whether it is in Ethiopia or elsewhere," said Mesfin Negash, managing editor of Addis Neger, in an email to IPI. "Ethiopia failed miserably to have both: free and vibrant media, and therefore a free and fair election."

He added: "Local independent media outlets and international correspondents in Ethiopia reported the election under serious pressure."

Referring to a "Code of Conduct for the Mass Media and Journalists" issued by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) earlier this year, Negash said: "It prohibits interviewing voters within a 500-meter radius of a polling station. It was even prohibited to take a photo in polling stations . . . Just outrageous . . . Practically, however, we have seen that government journalists were transmitting live from within polling stations."

Addis Neger, a popular independent weekly newspaper, decided to stop publishing in November 2009 after its editors and managers received a credible warning that they were to be targeted under anti-terrorism legislation.

In the months preceding the May elections, IPI called on the Ethiopian authorities to relax their stranglehold on the independent media, and condemned attempts by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government to limit the flow of information to people in the country.

"IPI firmly believes that no election can be deemed free or fair if there is no robust and independent local media to report on alleged government abuses, cover opposition candidates, or report on corruption," said IPI Director David Dadge. "The Ethiopian government must relinquish its somewhat obsessive desire to control the flow of information in the country."

Following Ethiopia's last round of parliamentary elections in 2005, dozens of journalists and opposition activists were jailed on fabricated charges, and several publications and civil society organizations were shut down.

Since then, the Ethiopian authorities have made every effort to manage the information presented in the press. Broadcast media are entirely state run and self-censorship is the norm amongst journalists for Ethiopian Television and Radio, according to IPI research.

Many of the print publications shut in 2005 remain closed. Local reporters continue to be arrested, harassed and intimidated, and since 2005, several foreign journalists have been detained or expelled from the country for covering sensitive issues. Recently, the government began jamming Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, which it compared to Radio Mille Collines, one of the stations involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In March 2010, the Ethiopian Supreme Court ruled that four publishers had to pay exorbitant fines originally rendered void under a 2007 pardon. The publishing companies were shut during the media crackdown of 2005, and the editors and publishers were jailed on treason charges. Despite the fact that all were either pardoned or acquitted, the government continued to push for the fines.

Finally, a slew of repressive laws passed in the last two years ensure that journalists work in a climate of fear.

"Everything done by [government print and broadcast media] is highly controlled by party people assigned at every level of the production of news and commentaries," said Negash, referring to the ruling EPRDF. "The private and independent media is also crippled. . . Internally, most of the independent newspapers lack the capacity to provide quality and influential information. Their circulation is very small and limited to the big cities."

He noted: "The few with the potential to provide such quality information are tied up with their fear and economic interests. As a result, they are too shy and apologetic in dealing with major issues of democracy and freedom of speech."

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