ESAT: what is in a name?

Originally posted on July 22, 2010

Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) has been making headlines for the saga related to its interruption. The latest announcement that the station is ready to roll once again is good news for the public as it is a source of alternative news and views. Various TV stations have been launched only to disappear with measured success. The Ethiopian Worldwide Television from London, the Washington D.C. based Ethiopian Television Network are just recent memories.   ESAT is the latest to test the water, albeit in different shape.

As private television broadcasting in Ethiopia is not allowed, all these projects have to be launched from abroad. Taking advantages of the technology and the network of professionals in the Diaspora, they launched the 24 hours TV programming last May.

esatESAT is the latest addition to the more than 300 TV channels that air programs through the Riyadh based Arabsat satellite service provider. The Eritrean government run Eri-TV is arguably the first one to enter the Ethiopian air waves through satellite back in 2004 first in Amharic then in Oromiffa. VOA also – after the jamming of its transmission – recently joined the Arabsat spectrum to broadcast its transmission.  Now it is ESAT’s turn. If they prove successful, expect more stations to follow suit.

The bulk of the journalists serving ESAT are from Europe and with some help from their colleagues residing in the U.S.   Most of the journalists are experienced professionals, some with prison stunts.

Signs of Success?

Since its first broadcast, ESAT proved to be a force to reckon with. It didn’t take long before the Ethiopian audience called them esat (fire). While the role of the media shouldn’t necessarily be grilling the government, the perception somehow indicates they are playing that part.

Three weeks into the launch their transmission was knocked off the air. That happened a couple of times before they were silenced for almost a month. Speculations still going on, the main suspects being the authorities in Addis. Addis Neger Online said that it has obtained information which indicates that “ESAT has successfully been jammed by Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA).”  The source also disclosed Chinese assistance was instrumental in silencing the station with an installation of a 700 MW jammer.

Ethio Media Forum refuted that and quoted a professional:  “The theory that a Chinese gadget from Sar Bet jammed ESAT doesn’t hold water and it is rubbish.”  They also added:  “ESAT was not jammed. It has nevertheless been sporadically interrupted by undetermined electronic interference.”

The service provider has been cautious from putting the blame on anyone for the “undetermined electronic interference”. Nevertheless, ESAT spokesperson Mr Abebe Belew, told  Awramba Times: “We believe we are jammed,” without actually saying who was behind it. In recent interview with the VOA, he again refrained from pointing fingers.  “The service provider is still investigating,” was his response.

Who is watching?

Television is a tricky media for most of the African audience. In Ethiopia, it is even much trickier. With around 30 percent of electric coverage, the other 70 percent is excluded from the benefit of such media by default. Even more, the cost of TV is prohibitively expensive for an overwhelming majority of Ethiopians. At the moment the number of television sets in the country is estimated to be around 400,000. That is a ratio of 1000:5. Most of these owners are concentrated in major towns. What makes matters even more challenging to satellite broadcasters is that all these TV sets cannot receive their signals without additional satellite receivers which normally cost half the price of the TV sets. That shouldn’t be a cause for concern though. Think of the Internet a decade earlier!

The most important advantage of the satellite transmission is that it is not hindered by lack of transmitters. ETV which uses transmitters (and satellite lately) currently covers 43 percent of the country. Fortunately, that is not a problem for satellite broadcasters. That is the advantage of the extra cost of having a satellite dish.

Over the last decade satellite dishes have been sprawling from the roof tops of many Addis Ababa neighborhoods. They are also constantly growing in the regional states. These days the cost of satellite dishes in Ethiopia has shown a drastic increase. In most cases up to 50 percent, hitting the 2000 Birr mark. Many people say ESAT has been one of the “culprits” for the price hike. Others attribute that to the recently concluded World Cup tournaments in South Africa.

As such, ESAT is costly to viewers, which for the foreseeable future makes them the media of the urbanites. Most of the Ethiopian private press have also been targeting this audience. What matters most is the existence of an alternative voice.

Smear Campaign

While it is too early to talk about their success, they seem to have gotten on the nerves of the powers in Addis to be a target of incessant smear campaign.

The TPLF owned Walta Information Center called ESAT “an emerging terrorists’ media.” They also claim “this television is funded by the Eritrean government and international terrorist groups.”  Walta, however, didn’t provide any evidence to sell this claim. When ESAT was knocked off air the first time, the cadres quickly ridiculed them by extending their wish to “Rest In Peace”. Then another one came which said ESAT was actually not fire but a moth (Yesat Rat). Then came: ESAT = Esayas Afeworki TV. The latest one comes with some ethnic flavor added to it, in the classic TPLF style. It reads: “If Amharic is not your language why give your money to ESAT?”  That is a reaction to the various fundraising activities the station is undertaking. The propaganda is not expected to end anytime soon.

To keep up

One of the most important advantage, it is a 24 hours transmission which can be viewed anytime of the day. Sure it is a monumental task to sustain a project like that.

The reporters strive to balance their information by trying to get the other side of the story. They show that they at least tried. That is one big step to create credibility. They are doing their best in hunting down the contact numbers of the news makers. Some of the responses from Ethiopian officials sound dramatic, to say the least.

The availability of their broadcast online through their website. They are also a constant presence in the video sharing websites of YouTube, EthioTube, and DireTube. The Internet presence allows audience to watch the programs in their own terms.

To reconsider

On the downside though, there are a couple of issues ESAT should be addressing:
As a European based media, ESAT could benefit highly from the advances in media in those countries.  Unfortunately, starting from the presentations, the title of their programs, even the attires seem to have been borrowed from ETV.

The need for plan B. ESAT should be ready for any measure from Addis Ababa. Depending on their success, that could range anywhere from tampering with their frequencies to taking legal actions on satellite dish owners in Ethiopia. VOA may have the budget and the diplomatic clout to tackle that but ESAT is vulnerable owing to financial constraints.

Its advisory board composition is also a bone of contention. The regime in Addis is attacking them claiming that since the owners and the advisory board members are known government critics, ESAT cannot be an independent media. The broadcaster insists it is owned by Taskforce for Ethiopian Democracy and Human rights (TEDH), which is a nonprofit organization.

At this juncture, we should also remember that the supposedly public media which is paid for by the Ethiopian tax payer is exclusively controlled by the ruling party cadres. Instances: the board chairman of the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency is none other than Mr Bereket Simon. His deputy Mr Shimeles Kemal sits on the board of the dying Ethiopian Press Enterprise and another top TPLF official Mrs. Netsanet Asfaw chairs the board of Ethiopian News Agency. So much for independence of media preached from Arat Kilo. All said, ESAT should still reconsider the members of its advisory board.

How far ESAT goes depends on a number of variables. Finance being the top most issue. Will they continue to entirely rely on handouts from donors and good Samaritans? Well, that is sure to put the station in a difficult position. They are planning to charge the Internet audience a monthly subscription fee of $ 10, as explained by the spokesperson of the station on VOA. That perfectly makes sense. Major dailies and weeklies like the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Newsweek and others have long begun charging for access to their content at a much higher rate. If we come to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean Newsletter charges an average of $3 per news item for its online content. In that regard, ESAT is just following a trend which befits their services. That is not to forget that they still should seek other sources of finance to sustain this bold project.

Whatever the fate of ESAT, they surely will take credit for showing that it is still possible to penetrate all the blockades and become alternative source of ideas.  All it takes is a bunch of dedicated and resourceful citizens which ESAT’s team has surely been.


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