Courting foreign waves Ethiopian way

Originally posted on Nov.15, 2012

Ethiopia and Qatar restored diplomatic ties, was the news that dominated the airwaves this past week. The Qatari delegation led by the Prime Minister were accorded a warm welcome in Addis Ababa that included a banquet.

There are no permanent friends or enemies only permanent interests, so goes the old adage. “We have sorted out our differences,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson assured the media.

Why did the two countries severed their relations in the first place? At the time the government in Addis was accusing Qatar of all kinds of misdeeds. At one point it went as far as labeling the Gulf state as “a major source of instability in the Horn of Africa.”

The elephant in the room

The official statement from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affaires (MFA) cited Qatar’s relation with Eritrea and its assistance to some of the Somali war lords as the reasons for the tension between the two countries. Another important source of the conflict was the ever pervasive satellite news channel which is financed by the state.

“It is hard to ignore the fact that Al Jazeera broadcasts out of Doha, the capital of Qatar. Qatar is a close ally of Eritrea. It would be totally unrealistic to imagine that any Al Jazeera program on Ethiopia could be anything other than seriously biased,” read the statement issued by Ethiopian MFA at the time.

aljazeeraAs a state owned media outlet, the channel may find it hard to completely assert editorial independence. In that regard, Ethiopia’s claim might be partially justified; but in a diplomatic cable released by Wikileakes indicated that the Qatari government was not ready to twist the arms of Al Jazeera. The country’s official in charge of the African Section at the MFA said:
“States more important than Ethiopia had expressed ire at Al Jazeera’s reporting without effect, and that Ethiopia would not succeed in changing Al Jazeera’s coverage by taking this action.”

By now these exchanges must have been toned down; and the officials of both countries were tightlipped about the satellite news channel in their press briefings.

Though it is difficult to say how Ethiopian authorities will react to future Al Jazeera coverages, for now it is safe to assume at least the website, which was filtered for its coverage of Ethiopian Muslims protest, will be accessible for foreseeable future.

South of the border

This is not Ethiopia’s first time to get into conflict with other countries for media coverage that didn’t please the ruling party. While the saga with VOA can make for  another piece, the beef with NTV of Kenya is analogous to that of Qatar.

Three years ago Kenyan Ambassador to Addis was summoned by the MFA for a reason beyond his control. Kenya’s privately owned broadcaster NTV – part of the Nation Media Group – was running a series on Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) entitled “Inside Rebel Territory.” Ethiopia was trying to stop the airing of the four part documentary. To that effect, the ambassador in Nairobi sent a letter to NTV executives saying the decision to broadcast the series is tantamount to speaking “for these terrorist elements in our sub-region, leading us to question NTV’s covert or overt political agenda.”

Covert or overt, NTV stood their ground. Besides, as soon as the series were aired the station wasted no time in making them available on YouTube for everybody to see.

While it is the duty of the powers to monitor what is said about the country they are governing, panicking and picking a fight on every little thing are hardly a panacea for all foreign affaires woes. Blaming it on “covert political agenda” to every bump on the road, even more so. Investigating and addressing the issues is in everybody’s interest.


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