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The Challenge of Disinformation before Elections

Ethiopia hosted the main celebration of 26th World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) in Addis Ababa. The celebration was special in that the host country is undergoing political change which included promotion of freedom of the press. Ethiopia, according to Reporters without Borders, ranked 110th in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index; however, it has improved 40 ranks since 2018. The celebration was jointly organised by UNESCO, the African Union Commission and the Government of Ethiopia. The main event took place on 1 through 3 May at the African Union Headquarters.

The thematic line for this year’s Press Freedom Day celebration was “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. Ethiopia, as a host country for the main celebration had a lot of lessens to learn. The country has one of the weakest traditional media establishments, while the new media is getting powerful in disseminating fake information. Amidst this crisis, a national election is scheduled to be conducted within a year.

The celebration of WPFD was not just a forum for panel discussions; rather, it was a big networking event among journalists, rights organisations, donors and other stakeholders who got together for the celebration. There were also many side events such as exhibitions, book launches, campaigns to put pressure on governments that jailed journalists, and so on.

There were also messages from media practitioners and representatives of organisations who are concerned about press freedom and democratisation. António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, in his message to the Day stressed the importance of a free press to build a sustainable and just system.

“A free press is essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights. No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

However, the year 2018, was the worst year for the press freedom globally. An excessive number of journalists experienced some of their worst challenges in this year. According to CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, “88 journalists and media workers are killed, 250 journalists are imprisoned and 61 journalists are missing in 2018 alone around the globe”.

Disinformation and Elections

“Informed citizens, who understand the current complex global political environment, are likely to feel more empowered to exercise their democratic rights and accept outcomes of free and fair elections,” reads the conclusion of the concept note prepared by UNESCO for WPFD celebration.

Nowadays, fake and misleading news have become a trend mostly online, and seldom in offline media outlets. Fake information can have an impact on affecting one’s financial decisions through to manipulating decisions to make votes during elections. They create fear among groups of societies, disseminate racist ideas and can be used to bully innocent people.

Due to an alarming growth of disinformation, the public is generally losing trust in media platforms. According to a 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report,

“nearly 7 in 10 people worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon”.

The report also mentions that “fake news disrupted elections in South Africa.” Out of 28 world countries covered in the report, 22 have a majority of people distrusting the media; the average number of people who trust the media is only 43%. On the other hand, journalism is found to be more trusted than the other platforms in 21 countries. Between 2012 and 2018, trust for journalists has shown a 5% increase, while trust in media platforms has shown a decrease of 2%.

The concept note for WPFD is also concerned about conflict-sensitive journalism which, “can play a pivotal role by bridging divides through accurate reporting, break down stereotypes, cover human stories and present solutions.” It says that such journalism can help prevent polarisation, violence and war. “[Conflict-sensitive journalism] can be a beacon in a storm of information where unchecked lies are disseminated, and emotions are whipped up to the detriment of a culture of peaceful conflict resolution.”

This, although, has been a challenge for journalists, simply because the competition is high, there are many alternative channels to break news to and so on. Discussing media and elections at WPFD, Carste von Nahmen, head of Duestche Welle Akademie, remarked journalists should win over the temptation of believing what went viral:

“Journalists have a role to play; they have to check facts and to make sure that people still trust them. They have to be correct every single time and resist the temptation to follow what’s viral.”

The Addis Ababa Declaration

The celebration of WPFD was concluded with a declaration leaving assignments for member states of the UN including electoral management bodies, for UNESCO, intergovernmental organisations, journalists, media outlets, electoral practitioners, internet intermediaries, and social media practitioners.

Governments are asked to put in place,

“transparent and effective systems to protect journalists, including press cartoonists, artists, ‘artivists’ and others who are at risk of attack for exercising their right to freedom of expression, thereby ensuring that they can carry out their public watchdog role effectively, including during elections”.

Similarly, calls are made to journalists and media practitioners to work on “ensuring that the public is provided with a diverse range of accurate information about parties, candidates and issues, and about any efforts to manipulate or influence the election, so that voters can make informed electoral choices” among other things.

Ethiopia, a country that is undergoing big political changes with little experience of democratic reforms, needs free but conflict-sensitive journalism to inform citizens about what is going on in the country. In addition, the election scheduled for next year needs a media platform cognizant of the challenges on the ground. I hope, the celebration of WPFD in Addis Ababa has given stakeholders a chance to grasp what is important to the media to focus on during election times.

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