In the run-up to the election in May of this year, ARTICLE 19 produced a handbook to aid journalists in the coverage of the nation’s 5th ever democratic election. Its advice is as relevant now as it was then.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second biggest jailer and detainer of journalists after its neighbour, Eritrea. Its broadcasting and telecommunications sectors are dominated by the state, and the minimal private media sector is heavily regulated and frequently censored.
The dire situation concerning media freedom is compounded by a number of other factors including economic constraints placed on the media and civil society; low newspaper circulation figures and failure to properly invest in the communications infrastructure. These conditions thus make it difficult for independent journalists to freely operate, especially in fairly covering elections.
In a democracy, citizens appoint the government of their choice by voting for their preferred candidates at periodic elections. To be able to do this, they must be fully informed about who is running for office and what the candidates’ programmes and backgrounds are. This in turn requires a free and pluralistic media and equitable access to the media for candidates, and a regulatory framework that enables freedom of expression.
Free access to information, including that held by the government, is also crucial because proper scrutiny of the policies of the incumbent government is impossible if a climate of secrecy prevails. This means that a functioning access to information law needs to be in place, and those state secrets laws and other criminal restrictions should not unjustifiably counteract the free circulation of information.
These conditions are not present in Ethiopia. Most likely than not, fear of physical or professional reprisal may deter journalists from broadcasting information that reflects poorly on ruling party candidates or may motivate them to give undue coverage to such candidates. However, journalists can take the first step by adhering to professional ethics even in such a closed environment. Indeed, observing professional ethics forms the bulwark of protection of journalists.
This handbook serves two purposes. One, it provides readers with a snapshot of the media environment in Ethiopia, in order for them to understand the difficult circumstances that journalists operate in. Secondly, it offers Ethiopian journalists professional guidelines on covering elections and safety tips to consider while in the field.
ARTICLE 19 hopes this guide will be used by journalists to improve the quality of coverage of the Ethiopian elections and support fair, reliable, and informative reporting on issues that are relevant to voters, including the electoral process, campaigns and elections, while safely doing so.