Ethiopia: Dawn of Election

More than a million Ethiopians were forced from their homes by violence in 2018 and 2019. Most of them were displaced from the Amhara, Somali, Oromia, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's (SNNP) regions.

Ethiopia, a democracy in the making, and has been for the past three decades, is preparing for what is thought to be a memorable election: the national election of 2020. In preparation for the election the brand new National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) under the former self-exiled politician and judge, Birtukan Midekssa, looks to be grasping at straws to make the August 16 timetable. As part of that preparation, just last week the Board convened various stakeholders to discuss a new code of conduct directive intended to regulate election reporting in the upcoming parliamentary and regional council elections.

In almost all major democracies around the world the result of decisive elections (national or regional) are announced by big media outlets, either conducting their own polls or collaborating with pollster companies. Based on exit polls (survey of voters as they leaving polling stations) these major media channels actually predict election outcomes even before final vote tallies are complete and official results are announced. In most cases, the official vote tally could take very long hours and even days leaving voters and candidates hanging.

Thanks to the exceedingly improving polling methodology and infrastructure employed by media institutions and pollsters, election result prediction is now mainstreaming around the world.

True to form, in advanced democracies like the US, presidential election candidates relay entirely on election predictions from some of the major pollsters and media houses to either declare victory or concede defeat.

Nevertheless, predictions are nothing more predictions; it remains to be the best possible approximation of the actual votes counted by election officials. And yes, they can rarely get the results wrong.

The most memorable UK election of 1992 in which Conservative party's replacement for the renowned UK leader Margaret Thatcher, John Major, not only retained the premiership but his party's majority in the house of commons is one case in point. What makes this a unique election is the fact that more than 50 independent and experienced pollsters and media institutions gave the election to the contender labor party under Neil Kinnock, at best projected a hung parliament until hours before the polling day. Not only that, some exit polls as well predicted another hung parliament in the UK.

Much to the surprise and afterwards leading to revision of most of polling houses methodology in the UK, Major's Conservative party took unprecedented overall majority in the House enabling it to form a conservative government.

However, election prediction based on exist polls has come a long way since then. The margin of error as well is declining through time. Meanwhile in the corners of East Africa, Ethiopia, a democracy in the making, and has been for the past three decades, is preparing for what is thought to be a memorable election: the national election of 2020.

In preparation for the election the brand new National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) under the former self-exiled politician and judge, Birtukan Midekssa, looks to be grasping at straws to make the August 16 timetable. As part of that preparation, just last week the Board convened various stakeholders to discuss a new code of conduct directive intended to regulate election reporting in the upcoming parliamentary and regional council elections.

One of the things covered in this code was the issue of pre-election polling and exit poll predictions. Much to the Board's credit, and in departure from the previous ways, it did not block the possibilities of polls appearing in mainstream media in Ethiopia. It generally allows pre-election poll and publicizing these polls and the results on the media. But, with an added caveat that all essential information about the pollster, the methodology and even the polling questions being clearly cited in such reports.

Nevertheless, the Board did not seem to be ready to deal with potential risks emanating from allowing exit polls and election predictions. But, what seems to be more worrying to media practitioners is the overall stipulation of the code which looks to be bent on heavily regulating media content and election reporting.

"In general, I felt like, this I have also said at the consultative meeting last week, the Board wishes to setup a desk at each and every media institution and regulate content in real-time," says Muluken Yewondwossen deputy-editor in chief of Capital Ethiopia, one of the few local English business newspapers in Ethiopia.

Some of the assertion in the code really exposes the drafters sever lack of insight as to how the media is operating worldwide, he argued further. "For instance, one of accreditation guidelines says that the Board will provide accreditation both for journos reporting from within 200 meters radius of polling stations and Outside," he states.

It is perplexing to see the Board planning to issue accreditation for reporters rooming outside of 200 meter radius of polling station, according to him; and claims that this is anti-constitutional and absurd in so many ways. "They might as well issue accreditation to journalists sitting at their homes, since in its strictest sense they can also be considered to be outside the 200 meter radius and observing elections".

Ermias Begashaw, journalist working for the Ethiopian Broadcasting Station (EBS), however, shares the fears and pressure that the Board might feel at this time. "I think the Board just like many in Ethiopia today is worried that the upcoming election would not be concluded peacefully and hence, it appears to be going to an extraordinary length to contain everybody and anybody who has something to do with the election."

The first problem for me is, Ermias told to The Reporter via phone interview, the fact that the Board seeks to dictate journalistic ethics in the name of election code of conduct to journalist. It is absolutely unnecessary to go that far and trying to shape professional conduct of an industry, he laments. This is expected from every media and we cannot be told of our own ethical responsibilities. If you ask me this looks like a tendency and inclination to dictate content and nothing else, he says.

To the contrary, the Board and its experts deny this fact. In fact, they argue that content regulation is not their intention, at all. "They should have focused more on granting better access to journalists towards extensive and clear election coverage," he says.

The thing is, Ermias continues, even if there is an intention to regulate content, the Board has no legal ground to do. On the other hand, if by any stroke of coincidence, if they do manage to get this directive passed, even then they still would have to think of conducting comprehensive content review of all broadcast and print outlets in the increasingly expanding media environment of Ethiopia. I think, it would be a difficult task for an overstretched NEBE, he argues.

As matter of fact, there are some 20 radio, 29 television and another 29 newspaper and magazine outlets in Ethiopia today.

The fact that both commercial and public media outlets are treated in the same manner in code is also telling as to the depth of the understanding the drafter has about how media functions, Ermias added.

The Board, however, believes that both public and commercial media outlets should be looked up on in the same way as far as election reporting is concerned.

This is very troublesome for Ermias. "The public media space, since it is funded by taxpayer's money, it has to provide equal access to all political parties in the country by principle; it is common property and every side should have equal share of the benefits. But commercial media is a different beast all together," Ermias argues.

Furthermore, he says public media due to its ownership structure is beholden to all the political parties to allocate equal time so that they can communicate their messages. "Are they saying commercial media as well is obliged to so? It is not clear at this point."

As far as Muluken is concerned the issue is not only about the principles and the difference in practice emanating from the ownership structure of media outlets, but it is also about availability of resources and capacity. It is highly impossible for commercial media outlets to afford the kind of equal access that the public media is supposed to prove due to lack of capacity, according to him.

"No doubt, public media institutions have better funding and human resource capacity to offer balanced coverage to all political parties; the case is reverse for the commercial media. There is little capacity to provide the type of coverage envisaged by the code."

On the other hand, the code appeared to have gone a bit further with the issue of media impartiality when it prohibits all media institutions from backing or endorsing any particular party or candidate or their views.

What is true is that in today's media landscape of Ethiopia the polarization of the institutions on political, religious or ethnic lines has reached an astounding level. Today, almost all major (in population number) ethnic groups in Ethiopia have one or more media institutions advocating their cause, experts observe.

Elias Meseret, a correspondent for the Associated Press (AP), goes even further, "The already weak and fragile media landscape in Ethiopia is taking a new direction at the moment: polarization along ethnic and political lines. This is very evident especially among media outlets that are mushrooming in the regions," he told The Reporter via social media correspondence.

While the profession requires journalists and media organizations to stick to the truth and provide balanced reports and analysis to their audience, Elias elaborates further, "Currently, we are witnessing an array of reports that directly reflect the current political turmoil in the country."

Sadly, most of the journalists interviewed for this story are of the view that the damages in terms of media polarization might have been done already.

Ermias argues that unless the Board wants to do a major redrawing of the media outline in Ethiopia, complete barring of advocacy is utterly unenforceable. "With the exception of public media institutions and some non-affiliated commercial media companies in the capital, which might be inclined to do proper election reporting, the majority I see continuing on the same line," he laments.

Looking at thing from this perspective, Muluken sympathizes with the election authority, "I do understand the pressure that is felt by the Board and other authorities, when there are highly skewed media practices largely prioritizing political or ethnic advocacy at the expense of the ethics and professionalism," he told The Reporter.

How can you have peaceful and credible election when the media industry is filled with practitioners willing to overlook facts in favor of political interest, and airwaves filled with staggering narratives and arguments? He continues to elaborate. "It is a predicament."

For another journalist, it is the capacity of Board that is source of worry. While not dwelling on the impact of the code of conduct, Yohannes Anberbir, an editor at Reporter newspaper, argues that the Board is currently cornered with its back against the wall, which is a very difficult election timetable.

"I do not believe NEBE has capacity to regulate media houses both at the center and peripheries in the first place," Yohannes argues adding that the Board does not have the human resources and logistical capabilities to do so.

"On the other hand, I also think the Board lacks in legitimacy to actually regulate media institutions or election reporting; especially among regional media outlets which are highly loyal to the regional administrations," he states. Furthermore, he says that even when they decide to regulate as much as they can, the enforcement would be dismal at best; and this would lead to a different set of problems: double standard in enforcing the code.

This is basically a recipe for disaster, according to Yohannes, since it will eventually eat way that the heart of the credibility of the Board and the election and the outcome by extension, he concludes.

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