Fears over Ethiopia’s press code for poll coverage – By Aaron Maasho (AFP)

March 24th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

A new press code that sets guidelines for coverage of Ethiopia’s elections in May has drawn fire from embattled media staff, who face fines and jail time if found guilty of violations.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia approved the framework two weeks ago, ahead of the May 23 polls, but journalists are already voicing their disapproval and fears over its restrictions.

The code bans journalists from carrying out interviews of voters, candidates and observers during election day, while it also prohibits predictions ahead of the announcement of results.

Transgressors face one year in jail for reporting on the latter.

“We stand against every article that is stipulated in the law. It simply puts an unreasonable amount of burden on any journalist,” Anteneh Abraham, head of the Ethiopian National Journalists Union, told AFP Tuesday.

“We simply can’t work under those conditions. The strict restrictions have instilled fear in all media workers,” he added.

Further restrictions have also been placed on coverage from inside polling stations during the same day, in particular the limited access granted for photography and video footage.

However, an article on security has sparked the most concern due to what is seen as ambiguity.

“Media workers must refrain from reports that may incite rebellion and terrorism,” according to the article.

It bans the “preparation, publishing and distribution of reports that foment political instability and chaos along ethnic, religious, linguistic … lines.”

“It’s way too dangerous for anyone,” a reporter told AFP on condition of anonimity.

“I will simply avoid covering the elections as it is not worth the potential trouble,” he added.

Anteneh said he doubted the legality of the government’s decision to allow an electoral board to come up with a press law, and slammed its authorities for adopting the code “in secret” without consulting all stakeholders.

But election panel spokesman Mohammed Abdurahman defended the code.

“The law does not intend to restrict coverage. Every element was given thorough consideration and is meant to safeguard the holding of transparent and free elections,” said Mohammed.

“For example, predictions are not allowed because there is no credible institution that can carry out polls in Ethiopia,” he added.

Journalists have had their run-ins with the government in Addis Ababa, notably in the violent aftermath of the 2005 elections which claimed some 200 lives and saw dozens of reporters rounded up and imprisoned.

Last week, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he was prepared to censure the Voice of America’s Amharic language service for its “destabilising propaganda.”

More than 29 million people have registered to vote for Ethiopia’s fourth elections since the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was toppled in 1991.

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