Sefiw Alebei, who is in his early twenties, is a graduate of Political Science and International Relations, updates himself on current Ethiopian political affairs via social media such as Facebook. He subscribes to four political parties’ official pages as he likes to get his information directly from the source, he explained.
The growth of internet and social media users like Sefiw has encouraged political parties to immerse themselves in the virtual world. One of the political parties contesting this election, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), under the leadership of Chane Kebede (PhD), has embraced the use of social media since 2014.
“Access to the internet is rapidly spreading across our nation. Hence, in order for our political programmes, policies and strategies to reach our voters, social media pages are essential. The primary goal of this page is to become closer to our voters,” reads the description of EDP’s Facebook page.
Five years ago, as the fourth general election of Ethiopia was being held, the number of people that had access to internet was a mere 450,400. By 2014, the number had quadrupled and reached 2.5 million, according to UNICEF’s 2014 study. In 2010, of the total population that had access to internet, 401,160 had Facebook accounts whereas in five years, this number has grown to 1,960,000.
Though 49 political parties had participated in the fourth general election, none had a social media base. This has changed at some level as at least six major political parties, of the total 58, including the incumbent government, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), EDP, and Semayawi Party (Blue) have joined the social media sphere, which includes pages created by various fans.
Semayawi Party, a newcomer to the Ethiopian political arena, has been utilising the social media to its advantage since its establishment three years ago through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, noted Yonathan Tesfaye, public relations head of the party.
Having computer literates and advanced professionals in the field as the party’s members has helped them engage in the online platform, he added.
The party used to have seven members that managed its public relations affairs including its social media engagement, now there are three as the others have been arrested in relation to their participation in the party, claimed Yonathan. These working members select, create and publish reading materials for the parties’ newspaper known as Neger Ethiopia as well as the online platforms. But the content made for the newspaper and the online platform differs as the former includes other political affairs that have no direct relation to the party’s activity.
Using social media, Blue Party invites its affiliates to join in upcoming events, report on events held, propagate their stand on current affairs, and disclose their political programme.
Similarly, EDP also has a seven- member committee to run its public relations affairs. The party uses its official account as well as its members’ accounts to promote its party programmes across the worldwide web, noted Wondewossen Teshome, public relations head of the party.
These parties, including Forum for Unity & Democracy a.k.a Medrek which was established in 2008, have no framed scheduled to publish content. News, press releases and relevant material are published as they come, says Tilahun Endeshaw, public relations head of Medrek.
On Facebook this week, the Blue Party ranks top, with 66,000 ‘likes’ of their Facebook page having 1.7pc growth of total page in weekly intervals. EPRDF takes the second spot with 27,000 likes while EDP follows with 13,000 likes. The latter two parties have 2.7pc and 0.2pc total page ‘like’ growth, respectively. Going further down the list, one can find Medrek with 175 people liking their Facebook page and 6.1pc of total ‘like’ page increment compared to last week.
Regarding Twitter accounts, EPRDF leads the ranks with 3,919 followers while the other party which has a Twitter account, Blue, has 638 followers. Blue also has a YouTube channel with 42 subscribers.
Apart from the ruling EPRDF, which has 501 candidates running for the 547 parliament seats, the aforementioned three opposition parties are among the ones who could pull off more than 100 candidates. Medrek had the largest number of candidates, with 270 contesting for parliament; whereas Blue and EDP had 129 and 165 candidates, respectively, to run for the parliament.
The social media have unique advantages, especially in the post-2005 period where people are fearful of expressing their opinions openly. They provide unlimited and free access to information provision and expression, said Yonathan.
Supporting this view, Wondewossen emphasised that most of the campaign materials they sent to various electronic media had been censored. However, through their Facebook page they were able to share freely, whatever information they had, regarding their programmes or party, he added.
At one time, Blue was accused by the government of inciting violence in the aftermath of the tragic incident that saw 30 Ethiopian Christian men killed in Libya, by a group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) on April 21, 2015. During that period, though Blue had not got the chance to express its stand on the issues through state media, it had echoed its message through Facebook, and had received 25,000 views at the time, claimed Yonathan.
By the time Fortune went to print, 9,283 people were taking about Blue, according to a data from Facebook while 13,237 and 10,934 people were talking about EDP and EPRDF, respectively.
Moreover, having an official presence for the entity will help to avoid online materials that can be distributed in the name of a certain entity, said Wondewossen.
In order for parties’ to conduct their campaigns, NEBE had also apportioned 600 hours of television and radio air time and 700 newspaper columns for election campaigning. The media access was allocated based on factors such as the number of seats in parliament, in regional councils, the number of candidates registered for the upcoming election and the number of female candidates. This was claimed as unfair by many opposition parties, pointing out factors such as the incumbents’ domination of 99.6pc of the seats in the parliament.
Though reports from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), the body which oversees the use of media outlets, indicate that parties utilised 82pc and 74pc of television and radio broadcast time, and 71pc of press columns, many were again complaining about being censored and their content being aired late.
Previously, EDP had claimed that articles they submitted were rejected because of constitutional violations, leading to its opting out of using media space availed to it, a week ahead of the termination of the campaign.
Such kinds of challenges are what makes parties look for alternative media. However, social media are yet to be fully exploited, according to Daniel Berehane, blogger and political analyst. He claims that parties do not seem to have a specific strategy for their social media engagement to be effective and successful.
It is not such a big deal to have an account, as almost everybody has one; what matters is how effectively they use it, emphasised Daniel.
Parties can aggressively use their online platforms for promoting their programmes and candidates. Most people were not aware of the party members running for eacj district and did not have their profiles – information that can and should be promoted intensively through Facebook, Twitter or other media. Parties should also work on raising the political consciousness of the society in addition to promoting themselves, he added.
Sefiw agreed, pointing out that mostly what he gets from the political parties is what has been already circulated and there is little value already published materials can add to what is on the ground. In order to improve, these parties should be creative, timely and flexible to promote their views by immersing themselves in the topics trending among the society, said Daniel.
Parties can widen their coverage by not only directly attracting their audience, but also by making themselves available through discussing the issues to which the audience has already been attracted, Daniel further explained.
The above gaps are recognised by the parties themselves. EDP said they have already learned from the past experience, how important social media are and the matter will be raised and discussed in the upcoming general assembly to discuss the party’s next move. Similarly Blue also will conduct its general assembly in July, 2015, to prepare the next action plan of the party.
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