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Ethiopia announces 'period of silence' ahead of elections

Daniel Pelz
June 18, 2021

Ethiopian authorities have announced new rules for political parties and the media ahead of Monday's poll. In the meantime, Facebook has removed a series of fake accounts which it had linked to the Ethiopian government.

Election campaign of Ethiopia's ruling party (file)
Image: Shewangizaw Wegayehu/DW

Ethiopia's national electoral board ordered a "period of silence" before Monday's parliamentary elections, which includes a ban on campaign rallies and new rules for local media houses. 

"Mass media outlets are not allowed to broadcast any kind of election-related activities during this period of silence. In addition, these institutions are not allowed to interview political party candidates," the commission said on its Facebook page. 

The period of silence was not designed to muffle the media, but to advance voter education, National Electoral Board spokesperson Soleyana Shimeles told DW.

"Our focus is informing voters about the voting process, about ballot papers, about how they can vote […]. We urge everyone anyone including political parties and the media to focus on that and give information to voters about the election day and how they can cast their ballots […]."

Election rally of Ethiopia's ruling party (file picture)
No election rallies are allowed during the period of silenceImage: Shewangizaw Wegayehu/DW

But some local journalists feel that the new regulations could severely impact on their pre-election coverage. 

"It affects the free flow of information between political parties and media institutions. […] It's some restricting our activities, our engagement with opposition political parties, it put some sort of walls between the voters, the media and the politicians," Neamin Ashenafi, deputy editor-in-chief of The Reporter, told DW from the capital Addis Ababa. 

International media freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) also voiced concern.

"You usually witness this kind of silence period right ahead of the elections," the head of RSF's Africa desk, Arnaud Froger, told DW from Paris.

"But usually in most countries, it's 24 or 48 hours. Five days seem a very long time for people to silence themselves and to restrict themselves from talking about the elections."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in parliament
Press freedom improved when Abiy Ahmed became prime ministerImage: Yohannes Gebireegziabher/DW

Media freedom improved significantly in 2018 when incumbent prime minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. He ordered the release of jailed journalists and allowed media outlets which had been banned by the previous government to resume operations.

But Reporters without Borders said that the situation had worsened again, citing arbitrary arrests of journalists at the end of 2020 and the expulsion of a New York Times correspondent in May.

Ethiopia ranks 101 out of 180 countries on the organization's 2021 press freedom ranking, down two places from last year.

Facebook removes fake accounts

On Thursday, Facebook announced that it had removed 65 Facebook accounts, 52 pages, 27 groups and 32 Instagram accounts for what it called "coordinated inauthentic behavior."

According to a Facebook statement, this network primarily posted in Amharic about news and current events, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the ruling Prosperity Party. 

"They also posted critical commentary about various opposition politicians and groups in Ethiopia, including Oromo Liberation Front, Ethiopian Democratic Party, and the Tigray People's Liberation Front among others," Facebook said, adding that the operation was targeting local audiences in Ethiopia.

Facebook accused the country's cyber-spy agency, the Information Network Security Agency, of being behind the fake accounts. 

Election materials in Ethiopia
The elections are scheduled for next MondayImage: Solomon Muchie / DW

DW's internet freedom specialist, Oliver Lindow, said he believes that the campaign had a significant impact before the accounts were removed.

"The groups had 766,000 followers. That means they had an incredible outreach. And if one imagines that every followers shares something which is then shared and liked again than you can really shape opinions," he said. 

"State funds or state agencies should by no means get involved into supporting any campaign or the campaign of the government," RSF's Arnaud Froger said. 

No voting in Tigray

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — who announced an end to decades of authoritarian rule in Ethiopia after taking power in 2018— promised that Monday's polls would be the first free and fair elections in a decade.

The vote was originally slated for August 2020 but were postponed to the COVID pandemic.

However, voting is not going to take place in about a fifth of the country's constituencies because of logistical problems or violence. 

Ethiopian refugees in Sudan
Tens of thousands of people have fled from Tigray to neighboring SudanImage: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

That includes the troubled Tigray region in Ethiopia's north.

A military campaign against the ruling Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) last November led to intense fighting in the area. Some 2 million people were driven from their homes.

Last week, the United Nations warned that 350,000 people in the area were threatened by famine. The Ethiopian government  rejected this figure.  

Uta Steinwehr in Bonn and Yohannes Gebreegziabher in Addis Ababa contributed to this article.

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