The long time professor of Ethiopian and African politics at the Addis Ababa University and leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress was picked up by security forces upon his arrival from a speaking engagement in Brussels at the beginning of December 2016. According to the state run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr Merera Gudina was arrested “for breaching article two of the first directive (of the state of emergency) that prohibits any contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization.” In a classic case of Ethiopian law enforcement—arrest then investigate—he had to remain behind bars for three months before charges were finally brought. As if to give credence to the case, Dr Berhanu Nega, Jawar Mohammed and the foreign based media companies of Ethiopian Satellite Television and Oromia Media Network have been added to the accused list.
Though this one came at a later stage in his political life, Merera is not new to life in prison. He spent seven years of his youth in jail for his role as a MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) organizer when that party fell out with the military dictatorship.
For the last two decades Merera has been treading a fine line to avoid prison, a universal destiny of the country’s political opponents worthy of the name. His fate, however, was sealed with a photo shot seems to have purposefully been posted on the social media. It shows the veteran academic sitting in between leader of the outlawed opposition Ginbot 7, Dr Berhanu Nega and the Rio Olympic marathon silver medallist-turned activist, Feyisa Lilesa. Truth be told, the OFC leader looks tense in that picture, hardly an indicator of cordiality, much less a coconspirator. May be looks are not deceiving after all!
The naked truth is: the three were speakers at the hearings; equally important Berhanu and Merera were activists since their student days in the mid seventies; should we mention both were professors of their respective trades at AAU?
The born again
Merera tiptoed into the nation’s politics in the mid 1990s. He likes to say dragged into it. He may be referring to a series of articles and the ensuing back and forth with the leaders and supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front in the now defunct Amharic monthly Tobia magazine. That debate appears to have been one of the reasons for him to come up with a newly minted outfit, the Oromo National Congress.The party was formed with a craft of an astute politician that was giving the identity driven ruling pack a run for the money. Not only did ONC borrow part of their name from the legendary African National Congress but also espoused the idea of ‘one man one vote’ that served a rallying cry for the struggle in the apartheid South Africa.
When ONC made strides in the 2005 general elections, it provoked the ire of the incumbent whose long hands triggered infighting among the party ranks.Then the Electoral Board interfered and awarded the name to a splintered group. Merera had to steer the ship with a different name. Fortunately, his personality outweighed the wrangling to draw even more support. While his contribution in the Parliament is up for debate, the one-term member was famous for his sarcasm and humour that kept the sleepy House lively when he was in attendance.
Say what you will but the 61 year old is among a handful of public intellectuals whose ideas have transcended the bounds of lecture halls. His PHD thesis ‘Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalism and the Quest for Democracy,1960 – 2000’ was published to the wider readership. The highly acclaimed 2013 semi-memoir ‘The complexity of Ethiopian politics and looking back through the years’(in Amharic) was reprinted multiple times. Scores of reviews and counter claims by people who got mention in the publication added to the controversy. His active political engagement, the writings, the interviews he gives, and his close to thirty years teaching experience at his alma mater—which ended after months of public acrimony over contract and credential issues— makes him an illustrious campaigner.
A day in court
The statements of the charge is a lesson in sloppiness at the prosecutor’s office. A sentence can go for a full two pages without a stop, making it difficult to comprehend the specific offenses committed. The stereotypical: incitement, overthrowing constitutional system, outrage against constitution didn’t disappoint either, all on board.
The first charge simply makes Dr Merera the mastermind of all the protests that took place since November 2015. What is baffling is why the government had to wait for over a year to bring him to book? Why was he never charged while in the country? This is where the overseas travel comes in handy with a picture to prove the otherwise lame case. So it was not the alleged communication with ‘terrorists’ per se that was important but the opportunity it provided to justify the arrest.
The immediate cause for the government move “contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization” got a faint mention in the charge stating in one line “he met with the second suspect Professor Berhanu on November 11, 2016, in Belgium” and that was exactly the day when the three addressed the European Parliament on the situation in Ethiopia. In other words, Merera was charged for a sitting arrangement that probably is not his own making. And from the list of 28 evidences none is about the contact between him and Ginbot 7.
Some of the charges are ludicrous, to say the least.Even doubting the security forces assertions comes with consequences.The fact that the academician didn’t buy claims of bravado in an interview with the Voice of America some three years ago turned out to be a criminal offense.
From the outset it seems the case is going to keep dragging for a while. Merera has been denied bail, though still fighting that one in the supreme court. In a country where all institutions are the extension of the executive, it is inconceivable to think the judiciary will be any different. While giving the courts the benefit of the doubt is apparently what the defense is set out to do, this is hardly a criminal matter that can be solved on the benches of the High Court.
These days Dr Negeri Lencho, Minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office is making the rounds at various media houses: BBC, Deutsche Welle, VOA, foreign based ruling party friendly media, EBC are just to mention but a few.
As the new kid on the block in the cabinet of PM Hailemariam Desalegn, Dr Negeri is creating an impression that he is open to all who seek his attention. In comparison to his combatant predecessor, Negeri is plain and soft spoken, devoid of party lingo, and above all professor of journalism at Addis Ababa University. What better preparation for the post!
However the one thing he lacks most is the information itself. He could barely come up with conclusive answer about his former colleague at the AAU when he was arrested shortly after a trip to Brussels. Lawyers and activists fared far better, concerning Dr Merera Gudina’s arrest, than the central figure entrusted with communicating state information. At the VOA interview he even dared to say the “government was protecting Dr Merera.” It’s anybody’s knowledge who sought protection from whom.
After hours of interviews given to the aforementioned media, there is hardly a revelation or some kind of breakthrough that is worth mentioning. Instead his understanding of the incarceration of journalists is clearly a cause for concern, if not outrage.
Take no prisoners
It is obvious that Dr Negeri is departing from the tried and tested responses about imprisonment of journalists. Negeri either doesn’t care or know about the narratives.While his predecessors never denied the imprisonment of journalists, their scripted response was no journalist is jailed for their reporting or writings. But the other day in his Meet EBC interview Dr Negeri broke with tradition by making a sweeping statement: “Ethiopia doesn’t detain journalists.”
Unless journalists are of a different stock to the academician, at any given time Ethiopian prisons host journalists as their favorite patrons. Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Temesgen Desalegn are not off-the-cuff bloggers but seasoned journalists and publishers who are serving anywhere between 18 to three years sentences, on charges stemming from the clichéd terrorism to the more outlandish attempt “to change the mindset of the youth.” Yonatan Tesfaye, Ananya Sori and Befekadu Hailu are another young batch of journalists and bloggers who are detained; matter of fact some have been arrested shortly after Dr Negeri took office. Their charges is probably in the making, needless to say terrorism is the favorite card to be picked any time.
Sources, sources, sources…
Much to the chagrin of the spokesperson, the Committee to Protect Journalists came up this week with a report accusing the government of putting 16 journalists behind bars, that made the country the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, just after Egypt and Eritrea.
Dr Negeri’s issues with rights campaigners is that they don’t disclose sources of information when they gather the data. He insisted on Meet EBC that the sources should be disclosed. Well, everybody wishes that would be the case ideally. But we don’t need to dig deep to understand the consequences of contacting rights groups or media houses.
• Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress was slapped with four-year prison term days after he met representatives of Amnesty International. Now he is in another round of terrorism charade.
• Last year a woman, in the drought stricken corner of northern Ethiopia, gave interview to a BBC TV journalist Clive Myrie saying people were dying of hunger.Then hell broke loose!Ethiopian Ambassador to UK, the government spokesman Getachew Reda, the Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom took turns lashing out at the British journalist for his intention to “tarnish the image of the country.” And district party operatives tracked down the poor peasant to force her recant the testament on Amhara TV.
• Days after the declaration of state of emergency words were that Zone 9 blogger Befekadu Hailu was arrested allegedly for talking to VOA, the same broadcaster Dr Negeri had a marathon interview with just the other week; add to that the voices of many individuals on VOA Amharic and Afaan Oromo are changed to conceal their identity.
Then, why should it be difficult to understand the concerns of citizens who want to remain anonymous when tipping off rights violations. If Dr Negeri wants to get to the bottom of the issue, he should look at the allegations not the sources; analyze court records about the charges; can even go bolder by taking steps talking to jailed journalists and bloggers. That will make him a genuine change agent!
As things stand now the one thing Dr Negeri may have an impact is in the chairmanship of the board of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, which by default comes with the new post. There is no more opportune moment than this for him to put his mark on the national broadcaster by giving it a semblance of a news media rather than condemning it to a mere ruling party propaganda outfit.
May theory and practice come in close harmony. Amen!
Thwarting an attack
Every year Information Network Security Agency (INSA) comes up with reports of cyber attack attempts on the nation’s infrastructures. Last year it claimed to have foiled forty. This year, according to the report presented to the Parliament,165 attacks have been intercepted. Good for them!
Problem is INSA is short on specifics. It never says which organization was the target and who the hackers were. And nobody in the Parliament dares to inquire. On a second thought, the director, Major General Tekleberhan Woldearegay could have put the figures at a thousand, who would challenge him anyway?
The facts on the ground, though, tell a different story. In recent years scores of Ethiopian websites have been hacked; their pages vandalized and defaced:The Auditor General,Ethiopian News Agency,the Ministry of Defense,the Red Cross Society and surprise, surprise, the sole Internet service provider of the country Ethio Telecom, to name but a few. It’s anybody’s guess what the Agency has been up to. Recently the National Higher Education Entrance Exam was stolen and posted on social media which prompted the Ministry of Education to postpone the exam for a later date. Is that outside of INSA’s scope of activities? Just wondering!
But when it comes to keeping tabs on dissidents, it leaves no stones unturned. Leaked reports show that the security outfit does whatever it takes just to snoop on the computers of what it calls “high value targets.” A transaction receipt of one million dollar was released on the social media for everybody to see. That is hardly defending the local cyber infrastructure!
Speaking of defense, INSA has achieved infamy by its foreign clients for mediocrity than proficiency. An official of the Hacking Team, the Italian company that provided service, wrote in internal memo: “The issue is their incompetent use of [HackingTeam] tools”.
Rather than securing the cyber space, INSA is engaged in blocking websites and tracking alternative voices on social media. Yonatan Tesfaye, a rising activist, is one such example. He has been in detention since December 2015 for his Facebook posts, despite countless claims by officials including the prime minister that no body is jailed for writing.
Like its industrial counterpart the Metals and Engineering Corporation(METEC),INSA is chewing more than it can swallow. Both are rooted in the military and led almost exclusively by Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) top guns.Freight tracking,installing security cameras,mapping,digitization of broadcasting system,policing telecom fraud,installing anti virus softwares; simply INSA is stretching its tentacles in every direction, making a number of public companies look redundant in its wake.
Last year when the Italian surveillance technology provider Hacking Team was itself hacked and all its documents dumped on Wikileaks, we were in for a little surprise. It is not that the Ethiopian government blocks websites or jams electronic media that do not necessarily ascribe to its ideology. That is a decade old experience people learned to grapple with. But here the details are startling how the Agency walks the extra mile to intrude into the devices of individuals who didn’t shy away from expressing their disdain for the government. We don’t know whether the expenses are worth the information sought. These are some of those correspondences with the vendors:
Hacking Team’s complaint
There is an issue with our customer in Addis Abeba. Although the customer obtained several results with our system, and despite the initial difficulties to control the behaviour of the target while trying to infect him from remote, it seems that they are still looking at us like the ones who can magically solve every issue.
An email for a transaction which later was paid
As you know, as per your request, we originally issued an invoice for the whole amount due ($1,000,000 Invoice n. 056/2011). The items included all our deliveries: hardware,software licence and professional services. That invoice was presented to the bank for the first payment but till today we didn’t get any feedback.
Major Biniam Tewolde’s frantic plea
Dear HT[Hacking Team],We cannot afford to lose our targets. this is not totally a possibility.You have to find a solution not to lose our targets. Even we can arrange our own anonymizers, but we do not lose any target.
Since we cannot update the scout in about 6 of our targets , our operation is highly negatively affected.
When materials linking Hacking Team to selling of spying tools to repressive regimes started to appear on the media, the Milan based company wants some issues to be straightened out and Major Biniam responds:
Greetings Mr. Biniam,would you please give a detailed explanation regarding the following allegations? https://citizenlab.org/2015/03/hacking-team-reloaded-us-based-ethiopian-journalists-targeted-spyware http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/08/ethiopia-digital-attacks-intensify
The targets we tried to exploit are members of a terrorist organization called Ginbot7 based on our parliament declaration. Ginbot7 is a terrorist organization, based on the parliament declaration, trying to terrorize the country , destabilize the country and destroy the constitution of the country. Neamin Zeleke is one of the top leaders of Ginbot7. We targeted him as top leader of Ginbot7 , not as top leader of media organization called ESAT. For us , Neamin Zeleke is one of the top leaders of a terrorist organization , not a journalist.
One email congratulates the Major
Dear Biniam,we are very happy you were successful in getting a high value target!
While we haven’t yet learned what INSA had foiled so far or what information collected, we were however able to establish the following:
The people who actually were trained by the Hacking Team in Milan to do the nitty gritty of spying on their own citizens or Ethiopian born foreign residents are:
Berhanu Girmay Desta
Godif Nigus Tesfau
Seblewoin Tsegaye Demessie, who did her Masters in computer science in Hunan University, China, specializing in concealing secret information in images and videos (the technical term is steganography). She can be reached at: email@example.com
The mastermind and the chief architect of all this is Major Biniam Tewolde. Biniam has since become deputy director and vice board chairman of Ethio Telecom. In one post he is introduced as “responsible for the cyber security for Ethiopia government [sic]” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Another startling finding from the trove of materials on Wikileaks is that INSA employees use their personal email accounts to conduct government business. The agency may only have a fraction of the correspondences with the Italian company for which it wasted over a million dollar tax payers’ money as emails were exchanged through personal accounts. In more sane situations this should have brought a criminal investigation tantamount to stealing state secrets.While presenting his report to the parliament the other week, the director general was criticizing other government offices for lack of cyber awareness. Let’s not forget that they have a 30-minute weekly radio program on ruling party owned Fana FM where they preach the gospel of cyber.
If the man “responsible for the cyber security for Ethiopia government” cannot secure his own communication, it’s baffling to think how the Agency can be entrusted with a nation’s infrastructure.Housekeeping is clearly in order.
Check the Wikileaks pages using these links:
Convicting an intel
After almost three years of proceedings, former head of domestic intelligence at the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Woldeselassie Woldemichael, has finally been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison just the other week. Doubts linger as to the real motives of the charges. A falling out with colleagues cannot entirely be ruled out. After all, nobody out of the tight-knit band of brothers could have known about the misdeeds. It has all the signs of a domestic affair situation.
For reasons unknown, the stories of the trial for the large part were covered by ruling party owned and affiliated media: Walta Information Center(WIC), Fana Broadcasting Corporate(FBC)and the Reporter. In the good old days Walta was addressing the accused as “senior researcher on peace and security” occasionally quoting his “words of wisdom” in terror related stories.
We’ve heard that before
Woldeselassie, along with two of his siblings (if it rings a bell, you got it!),was charged with grand corruption,namely,using public office for personal gains and accumulating wealth beyond his means. If you think about it, owning expensive properties in the posh suburbs of the capital; hoarding prime lands; opening multiple accounts under various names by officials and the army top brass is a stuff of legend.
One charge brought by the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission(FEAC) is particularly interesting: misleading a top official(currently minister of state)into printing his work entitled Terrorism in Ethiopian and Horn of Africa. Little did we know the security chief had the calibre to take on such global issues in the absence of information about his academic or professional credentials. To add salt to the wound, he also forced scores of enterprises to buy hundreds and thousands of books taking cash in advance and never delivering the products. In the most anecdotal fashion, Et Fruit, a public enterprise responsible for the most mundane task of distributing fruit and vegetables is among the major sponsors of the publication!
Indications are Beyene Gebremeskel,former director general of Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency (PPESA), seems to have cowered in the face of the mighty security official. Not only did he give a green light for the production in at least three of the printing houses he oversees, but also according to the charging documents, might have involved in editing the manuscripts. No charges brought against him.
Handle with care
After the court passed a guilty verdict, the consideration of mitigating factors clearly shows how some citizens are handled with special care. The defendant didn’t let the opportunity slip without mentioning his involvement in the “struggle” to topple the Marxist regime gone a quarter of a century ago.The judge bought it! Translation: being a member of Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) can help reduce prison terms! Paradoxically, the publication which is at the center of the crime has also helped lessen the gravity of the sentence as the court concurred with the defense the work has created awareness about terrorism in the society.
Publishing books and squeezing companies to buy them has helped some ardent party hacks make quick money. Almost all who wrote the story of Meles had no difficulty disposing of the books to schools, various institutions and local government offices. One most notorious example is a Colonel Eyasu Mengesha who cobbled together a “biography” of the dictator launched in a pompous ceremony at the Sheraton Addis in the presence of the then head of state. A couple of others followed suit making good fortune in the process. The late head of Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) had a knack for churning out volumes and twisting the arms of government agencies into buying them. In that regard, it is hardly surprising that another TPLF official comes up to claim his share of the pie.
Woldeselassie’s actions are typical instances of abuse of power and lack of accountability at the highest level. The war against corruption is hopelessly lost. FEAC which is in its last legs,happily so, after a series of legislation took their prosecutorial power away from them, may take credit for successfully bringing a criminal to book. However, without risking to sound cynic, it is the squabbling rather than the actions of the dormant government watchdogs that eventually will bring the corrupt officials down.
These past couple of weeks the nation’s sole TV broadcasting station has been celebrating its 50th golden jubilee. To be exact though, it is a bit older; whether the launch is on the occasion of the founding of the Organization of African Unity in May 1963, as some say; or the 34th coronation anniversary of the Emperor in October 1964.
The news of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation’s (EBC) golden jubilee raised eyebrows when a media promotion outfit was awarded a 10 mil.(ETB) contract to organize the event. A baffled audience reacted through all possible channels. Then the host and Serawit Multimedia quickly brought the deal down at three million — still a huge sum by local standards —just in a matter of days.The rumors, circling around town as if the largely toothless Anti Corruption Commission investigating the scheme, were refuted by both parties.
Celebrate good times…
Then the show was on. Forums were organized to revisit the past; an exhibition that focused on staff development and technology attracted many visitors; reports that illustrate the role of the station in promoting music, sports, plays, literature, entertainment and the likes were the staples of the occasion. EBC even commissioned a theme song. Truly, for those who are interested in the media history of the country, there was always something to learn. The quick transition from a live only broadcast to pre-recorded shows; a 40-minute transmission stretching to all day; monochrome to colour; from serving the residents of Addis and its environs to covering most parts of the country; from being accessed on screens put on public squares to cozying up on the palm of the hand. Talk about milestones!
Selling diversity and Pan Africanism
In the past half a century, EBC seems to have seen it all : ten years of the Emperor; seventeen with military dictatorship; and a quarter of a century of the TPLF/EPRDF administration. No matter what the political system, the station was swiftly adjusting itself to be at the service of the next owner of the country.
“Any government media has the responsibility to promote the ideology and philosophy of the powers of the day. EBC has been discharging its responsibilities in that manner,”
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn seems to concur with that notion when he told an interviewer on the occasion of the anniversary. That is in stark contrast to the claim of the voice of diversity, which clearly is in short supply.
Add to that, almost all the landmark events that shaped up the propaganda juggernaut were never initiated within: EBC was officially launched on the 34th coronation anniversary of the emperor; Jonathan Dimbleby’s the Unknown Famine which hastened the downfall of the emperor was screened under the direction of the junior officers—who metamorphosed into Dergue—to mobilize public support; transmission in colour began on the occasion of the formation of the Workers Party of Ethiopia, there were not even colour TV sets in the country to receive the signals as a former official of the Ministry of Information lamented; broadcasting in Oromiffa and Tigrigna languages started with the change in government. All these cast doubt whether the station can get on its feet as an institution despite its age.
It is not lost on the organizers that selling the diversity claim was a tough act. That is why they preferred to dwell on the technological advances, which unfortunately was not initiated by the station either. If they were not in sync with the prevailing system, the risk of being shut off altogether loomed. While the station is adamant in its insistence it is in par with the best, those claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes the self-aggrandizement is simply out of bound. One of its technicians with close to four decades of service in the company—we were told—clearly was carried away when he maintained the station has the capacity to compete with the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN. That reminds us of the time when the headquarters moved from the city hall building to the current location down Churchill Road in 1997, the director at the time created an uproar when he claimed they got the second most advanced studio in Sub-Saharan Africa after the Republic of South Africa. Never mind, nobody bothered to fact-check!
As if the voice of diversity wasn’t enough to create controversy, EBC declared itself “the first media to champion Pan Africanism.” Hypocrisy at its best, if not downright chauvinism. A conclusion inferred on questionable premises, which assumes most African countries were freshly independent and as such they didn’t have media of their own. To the contrary, several African countries had media outlets even during colonial times. And for starters, Pan Africanism didn’t begin with the launch of the station either.
Where credit is due…
• EBC honored their fallen by naming a training center after the two camera operators who succumbed to enemy fire during the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late 1990s.
• They preserved some unique pictures including that of the Emperor announcing the launch: “In our endeavor to educate the public and provide them with knowledge, television is deemed an indispensable medium. And to that end, it is a pleasure to launch the Ethiopian Television Station.” Guess what, they tracked down the person who taped that footage!
• It was also interesting to relive the moments when the nation hosted the African Cup of Nations for the last time, some four decades ago.
• Last but not least, they acknowledged in various ways the hundreds of professionals who toil behind the camera. Giving them moments of glory was a commendable move on EBC’s part.
And the future…
The station has transformed from Ethiopian Television (ETV) to Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA)and now to EBC.The last structure probably was borrowed (imposed?)from the ruling party owned Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) which changed their name in 2011. EBC followed suit three years later. While it may require an expert to evaluate the merits of Corporation over an Agency, one cannot, however, overlook the fact that the past successive directors have come from the party owned media.
Though press freedom was declared in the country since October 1992, electronics media for long time have remained the preserve of the government. It is only in 2008 that the first privately owned FM radio started broadcasting. Until now five were given licenses in a protracted procedure. The issue of privately owned TV was put on the back burner. That frustration has led some to get to the sector through satellite broadcasting, which seems a more realistic prospect, as a few have already set up shop.
EBC’s monopoly on the tube will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. That is to be strengthened further by new law that states independent operators venturing into TV broadcasting will not be allowed to have their own transmitters. They are required to use EBC’s infrastructure. The idea, ostensibly, is to make them focus on producing content. On the flip side, it makes it easy for the government to shut them off by denying access. Anything that comes close to another terrestrial TV channel is that of Fana, who are said to be on their way to having one. Otherwise it’s going to be a while before we use Ethiopia and Private TV in the same sentence.
The much talked about Ethiopian Media Council has been established by the all too familiar faces. The organizers claim that it has taken them a decade to achieve their objective. While it is not that undesirable to have the council, neither is it something that the country’s press is particularly dying for.The most important issue being creating a media environment where all voices can be heard without fear or intimidation.
No one denies that a genuine media council would have helped journalists to be monitored and regulated by their own peers rather than by overzealous law enforcement officials, as is the case in the country. Alas, the newly formed assembly doesn’t give much hope for optimism either.
To begin with, the person who wants to go down in history as the founder of the Council has been instrumental in abetting the witch hunt of journalists by the government.Their weekly program “Kib Terebeza” (Round table) is all about vilifying critical voices whether in the media or in politics. Even on the eve of the gathering, the show was on all out war against a known opposition leader Yilkal Getnet. The other founding members are either supporters or operatives of the ruling party, making it hard for them to be viewed impartial in the eyes of the public, much less by fellow journalists.
Even without those paradoxes, the formation was mired in controversy. Most of the media in the country have boycotted it. Budding private newspapers, professional associations, civic society and other crucial elements were markedly absent. As to the online media, the Council was unequivocal in excluding them, though most of the participants’ media outfits maintain a steady web presence. That means, when and where the Council starts to work, it can only oversee the affairs of its member enterprises, most of which, by the way, are indistinguishable – Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), Zami FM, The Reporter, Ethio-Channel and like-minded flocks. And the source of its finances is barely ironed out. Lest we forget, who pays the piper calls the tune!
EBC’s solid presence was rather awkward,if not undesirable. An establishment notorious for its persistence in calling for arrests of journalists can hardly be proponent of media ethics. Its curiously titled series of Akeldama and Harakat were sowing fear among the private media. Unfortunately, about a half-dozen of the participants were related to EBC one way or the other. It begins with Getachew Reda who heads the board of the corporation.The others didn’t necessarily spoke for EBC. They masqueraded as representatives of various unions. And the deputy general manager was elected secretary of the Council. No wonder then the company rushed to air a piece entitled “New chapter for the media.”
If the gathering of a bunch of bewildered media hacks heralds the onset of a “new chapter,” then mass communication in the country has really hit rock bottom. Time to save it!
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in a thug of war with the Ethiopian government. The last time the two locked horns was around five years ago when an investigative reporting exposed how aid money was siphoned off to buy arms by the then rebels when the country suffered the worst drought in the mid 1980s.
Last week a BBC correspondent, Clive Myrie, had produced a four-minute piece about the drought currently affecting over eight million people. The TV broadcast included interviews with some locals who bore the brunt of the catastrophe and who said people have already died.
The report apparently irked the government. First to react was the Ethiopian embassy in London which always feel they are duty bound to respond to BBC because of their physical proximity to Bush House. They lashed out at the report calling it “sensational news broadcast.”
Then a string of others followed in quick succession. An official from the Prime Minister’s office told the local Sheger FM that BBC’s report was “intended to tarnish the image of the country.” He explained at length how El Nino was to blame for the calamity. The El Nino narrative seems to be the most agreed upon explanation by the officials for the current situation. When Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom was interviewed on the Voice of America, he never missed a chance to dwell on it. This same narrative was repeatedly told in all the news and other stories aired on the local media. To drive the point home, some politicians including Dr Teodros had no qualms comparing the situation with the drought in California.
Over the weekend the Bahir Dar based Amhara Television (ATV), which by and large is an extension of the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (formerly ETV), came up with a report accusing the BBC coverage of misconstruing the interviewees statements.
With the one-to-five country-wide controlling mechanism, it didn’t take long to the crew of ATV to locate the folks who gave interviews. They were made to retract the statements on the regional TV. What makes the case awkward for the locals is they don’t even know what the BBC had reported as it is inconceivable for them to have electricity, let alone TV, and even more so cable networks.
It is a common practice in the country to go after people who meet foreign media or rights groups. In 2011 a discussion with Amnesty International cost Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress four years in prison.
So BBC and Ethiopian officials may not see eye to eye for some time to come. Clive may not get his accreditation renewed, hardly the first foreign correspondent to walk that line. As to the villagers, if appearance is anything to go by, then they have nothing to lose except their misery.
The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?
But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.
When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.
To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.
For a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.
It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.
GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.
The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.
Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.
All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.
While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.
Barely weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Aljazeera that his “government has a clear evidence” that the Zone 9 bloggers “are connected with one of the terrorist groups,” words came that five bloggers and journalists: Asmamaw Woldegiorigis, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun,Tesfalem Weldyes and Zelalem Kiberet were released abruptly. Along with them, award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu was also set free. Reeyot, who has been in jail since 2011, was probably months away from fully serving her five years sentence even without the customary parole which she declined to accept as it came with strings attached.
Some media claim that the release is intended to please US President Barack Obama who is scheduled to visit the country over the weekend. The government denies that saying they are simply extending “magnanimity,” to borrow the explanation of Redwan Hussein, the head of communication affaires office.
There were stories some just leaving the prisons with their pajamas on; some not sure as who to call and where to go. After 14 months spent in jails , the Ministry of Justice citing its authority given by some proclamation “decided to withdraw the charges,” according to the government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal. The ill-conceived and haphazard steps of the ministry created sigh as well as confusion. The released told media that they are not fully content as half of their colleagues are still behind bars on the same clueless charges. Their lawyer Ameha Mekonnen has a more professional concern. He told the local Amharic weekly Addis Admass that there was a precedent with the now imprisoned journalist Temesgen Desalegn whereby charges were reinstated after they had been dropped.
Then on July 20, many expected the courts to let the other four go under some pretext. Alas, that was not to be! The 19th bench of the Federal High Court citing technicalities adjourned the case for end of July. As part of the blogging ensemble charged with the same offense have been released, moving forward it is anybody’s guess what legal sense does the whole process make.
The adjournment has just added to the drama; first, Obama — if at all his upcoming visit caused the release — will have left the country by then, easing the pressure on the government; second, the more lengthy the trial, the likelihood of being forgotten looms.
Otherwise the inconsistency of the trial coupled with a judicial system considered an extension of the governing party makes the final outcome utterly unpredictable. Hoping for the best is all we can afford at this time for Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu and Natnael Feleke.