Fighting the ghosts of the Ethiopian private press

Originally posted on Jan.6, 2010

The Ethiopian private press is in the limelight again. As part of the Prime Minister’s threat not to repeat what happened in 2005, a huge anti press campaign is well underway, resulting in countless interviews. The government is set to hit hard at any opposition in its way before the inconsequential elections slated for May of this year. The current campaign is a prelude to the subsequent measures to be taken if anyone wants to challenge the status quo.

While there is almost no private press in the country that could in any way challenge the authorities at Menelik Palace, the Government seems to be haunted by some ghosts. Otherwise the onslaught shouldn’t have been necessary at all.

Tell me lies…

ethiopian-mediaThe “documentary”, as ETV likes to call it, is full of fabrications and lies in the best tradition of revolutionary democrats. Some of the lies are supported by real footage with a distorted narration of the fact, one of them being a public protest that took place in 1994. The producers of the program unashamedly tell us it was a protest against the private press in general. Well, in comparison to the day-to-day lies the station fabricate, it may sound not a big deal.

However, the record should be set straight. That was a demonstration against a couple of magazines who had pornographic content, the most important of them being Enkoy. That’s all about it! It was never against the private press. That was the reason why the protest was attended exclusively by women. And it has to be added that the demonstration was actually organized by the new kids in the palace as they thought it would help boost their moral stature by the general public. Alas, it was so amateurish that some of the pregnant women who took part in the protest carried slogans that say “We don’t want sex” (wesib anfelgim). That slogan served a raw material for many a cartoon by the private newspapers at the time.

Another repeated lie in the campaign was the narrators’ quotation of headlines after headlines from the private press. In almost all those cases the headlines are quotes of individuals than the words of the publishers. The quotes are clear for everyone to see.

To lend credibility to the propaganda, ETV persists on sound bites of two academicians from school of journalism at Addis Ababa University. One of them later on complained on the weekly Addis Admass saying his views had been distorted and doctored to fit the mold.

The other one was rather vigorous in attacking the media practitioners of the private press. He said most wrote their stories smoking Shisha. He labels them “extremists”. As if that was not enough, the assistant professor of journalism makes a sweeping statement saying the private press in Ethiopia is on a “destructive course”.

The president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association was out to condemn everything that has the word private. He had no kind words to the journalists he was supposed to defend. He was so angry by the private press that he had to cross the border to Kenya to make his point. He accuses the Kenyan media of fomenting violence during that country’s 2007 elections. He doesn’t cite any study or publication to substantiate his hearsay. For the record, the Kenyan media is the most vibrant press in the African continent. It is the real fourth branch of the Kenyan government. The Daily Nation and The Standard are the engines on which the politics of the east African country thrive. It will take ages to come anywhere close to that country’s media.

Of soldiers and captives

ETV accuses some of the private press publishers as being former soldiers. What they forgot was two of the people who were interviewed to justify the government’s assumptions were also soldiers during that same Dergue regime: one was an airborne the other one being a captain. Weren’t they hurting the feelings of their own collaborators? Don’t they know the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization leaders beginning from the current mayor of Addis Ababa, Mr Kuma Demeksa were all soldiers who were captured by Eritrean People Liberation Front and Tigrean People Liberation Front.

From Eritrea with love

In its desperate attempt to discredit the private press, the program touches upon the Eritrean TV. Was that supposed to compare the Ethiopian private press to the Eritrean government media? In that case it is lame. Because TPLF was a creation of EPLF. And the later took it upon themselves to train their gullible disciples everything they know. Should we continue talking about similarities?

The beef with VOA

Then the producers turn to the Voice of America. They use post 2005 footage to show us how the public was angry at the Washington D.C. based media. The journalists at VOA are accused of working for Sertoader which was the organ of the Workers Party of Ethiopia during the Dergue regime. It is difficult to say which VOA journalist was the target of the attack. Certainly, VOA has a shiny history when it comes to fighting totalitarianism. During the 70s and 80s, it, along with Radio Free Europe, was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain. They played a significant role in liberating Eastern Europe from the shackles of Marxism.

VOA and Deutsche Welle have been the most trusted sources of information in Ethiopia. As most of us recall, having locked up the private media journalists and closing the publications, the government tried to jam those broadcasters in vain. Then one of the reporters of VOA, Mr Meleskachew Amha, was beaten up. That didn’t change anything. Then the authorities started to force the public to sign a petition which was supposed to be delivered to the respective embassies. When all that proved to be an exercise in futility, five journalists of the VOA were charged with genocide. Funny enough, some of those haven’t been to Ethiopia in two decades. The guys at Arat Kilo had no choice but to drop the charges.

Fairy tales of the Economy

Then comes ETV’s favorite article from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which predicts Ethiopia’s will be the fifth fastest growing economy in the world. If that is the case, we will all be happy even knowing whose pocket will grow fat with that figure. Fortunately most of us are under no illusion how figures translate into the actual injera on the table. Aren’t we growing 10 to 12% every year! That mere PREDICTION was passed to all Ethiopian embassies worldwide by the ministry of foreign affairs. The diplomatic missions were ordered to discuss the issue in all available media. ETV repeatedly uses this information to brag about the economic performance of the government. By the way, four months earlier that same magazine said:”Mr Meles…with a dismal human rights record who is intolerant of dissent,” it went on to say “… sprinkles spies through the university to intimidate and control the students”, the Economist August 13, 2009. Ethiopian embassies were not ordered to discuss that.

The “gutter press”

What is surprising is the private press with all its shortcomings had a tremendous impact in shaping up public opinion in the country. Some private newspapers in their two years existence have done more than what government papers failed to do in seven decades. The government was decidedly against the private press from the outset. The Prime Minister called it “gutter press”, and did all in his power to suppress it. The country was always listed as the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism. Even after closing all the private press, Ethiopia recently was listed by Committee to Protect Journalists as the second most dangerous country in Africa to be a journalist. The suppression doesn’t end there. Ethiopia is also famous for blocking websites. All major news websites are not accessible. The ruling party didn’t care to improve the abysmal 0.2% internet penetration rate which is the lowest on planet earth. But with a little help from China, they managed to restrict access to the Internet.

All the news that’s fit to print

Before concluding this write-up, it is important to mention samples of the news that ETV fabricate.
Prime Minister Meles had a two-hour discussion with President Bill Clinton at the White House when the truth was revealed to be a 20 minutes affaire.
In 2002 the longest-serving foreign minister in the history of the country used ETV to tell the public that Badme has been awarded to Ethiopia by the International Boundary Commission.
General Hayelom was martyred (tesewa). Everybody knows martyrdom is for those who give their lives for altruistic causes. Do we need to mention how he died? God rest his soul in peace!
Mothers expressed joy over the detention conditions of their children in the Ziway prison following election related protests in 2005.

Technical glitches at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation caused the interruption of text messaging by phone. It forgot to tell us how it had happened days after the elections and why it took the engineers at ETC three years to fix it. That “glitch” is so nasty that it is still preventing us from accessing Ethiopian news websites from Internet cafés in Addis.
That is a TV used for displaying weapons from the government armory when they want to lockup opposition politicians accusing them of coup d’état. But that list makes for several books.

He who lives in a glass house…

Those who live in a glass house should know better than not to throw stones. When the ruling clique accuse others of telling lies that is travesty at its peak. This article is not a call for the revolutionary democrats to stop lying. They cannot do that. Lie is the foundation of the system. Without it the system will fall apart. But when they go out of their way to preach about truth and ethics, they pass what the ‘dear leader’ calls the “red line”. That is where it hurts.

In a recently held press conference the Prime Minister was asked about his views on the program. He said while he didn’t watch the “documentary”, people told him that it was a very good one. Remember Sebhat Nega’s interview to the VOA about anti terrorism law in Ethiopia. The Member of Parliament said he didn’t read the draft but people told him it was a good one. It makes sense. Who in their right mind waste their time watching or reading trashes, when it can better be spent enjoying the booty.

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