Whatever happened to private TV in Ethiopia

Last week, the South­ern Regional State launched their own TV sta­tion. Debub TV is expected to air a ten-hour pro­gram­ming from its sta­tion in Hawassa to the region’s esti­mated 16 mil­lion peo­ple. So far they were air­ing a one hour broad­cast through Ethiopian Radio Tele­vi­sion Agency (ERTA). Typ­i­cally, they would pro­duce their pro­gram from the regional mass media agency then send the one hour tape to Addis Ababa to be broad­cast on the national TV. From now on, the Region wouldn’t use the help of oth­ers to get on air. The sta­tion is a ben­e­fi­ciary of a late-comer advan­tage, as such they are said to have acquired state of the art pro­duc­tion equip­ment installed by MJO Broad­cast at a cost of ETB 180 mil­lion (close to $10 mil).

All said and done, con­tent wise, there will hardly be much of a dif­fer­ence from what the national TV is offer­ing. It may as well be the same old chan­nel prob­a­bly with a dif­fer­ent intro to it.
Almost all the regional sta­tions are repli­cat­ing what the national TV is broad­cast­ing. The TV spec­trum is doomed to the exclu­sive monop­oly of the rul­ing party ideology.

A few weeks back word came from the most unlike­li­est of offi­cials. Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda was quoted as say­ing: “Issu­ing license for TV broad­cast­ing needs extreme cau­tion.” As the media can be used in nation build­ing, Abadula argued, words can have the power to break soci­ety apart.

If one already allows radio — albeit FM only — the poten­tial dam­age the “words” could bring on the screen, if at all, is quite min­i­mal. If you allow radio, which can be heard any­where and every­where, why not TV which is less ubiquitous.

A decade after the estab­lish­ment of Ethiopian Broad­cast­ing Author­ity (EBA), which is respon­si­ble for issu­ing licenses, the coun­try hasn’t got a pri­vate TV, and the chances of hav­ing one is bleak, at least in the fore­see­able future. That how­ever, doesn’t mean there are no activ­i­ties in that direc­tion. Tigray Peo­ples Lib­er­a­tion Front (TPLF) owned Fana and Walta Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter have long been in the TV busi­ness in var­i­ous ways. Both made for­tunes by pro­duc­ing fea­tures and enter­tain­ment pro­grams all to be broad­cast through the pub­licly owned ERTA usu­ally through “spon­sor­ship” schemes. In most cases the four periph­eral regional states of Afar, Ben­is­hangul Gumuz, Gam­bella, and Somali footed the bill. Why these Regional States? Bet­ter saved for another story!

ethiopian-broadcasting-corporationCur­rently the most con­ve­nient excuse to delay the licens­ing of pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing is the com­plete tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal trans­mis­sion. While most of this is a game shrouded in tech­ni­cal lingo, it is not even clear who is lead­ing the tran­si­tion: ERTA, EBA or the Ethiopian Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Agency, which for the most part has pre­ferred to stay mute.

The newly appointed Direc­tor Gen­eral of EBA, Zeray Asge­dom — until recently head of ERTA — told par­tic­i­pants of a sem­i­nar that after the tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal, there will be scores of local TV chan­nels (other offi­cials are more spe­cific putting the chan­nels at 22). Accord­ing to lat­est infor­ma­tion, the tran­si­tion will be com­pleted in 2016, that is, in less than two years. Talk­ing about the buzz sur­round­ing analog-digital talk, it has noth­ing to do with the vari­ety of ideas enter­tained in the media, rather it is just about a bet­ter way of receiv­ing signals.In the dig­i­tal for­mat one either gets clear images or noth­ing; no blurry or flick­er­ing sig­nals. That’s the most basic com­po­nent of the whole issue.

What­ever the excuses for not issu­ing licenses for pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing, the more altru­is­tic motive of the delay lies somewhere else. It seems they are giv­ing Fana time to fin­ish their sta­tion which has been in the pipeline for the last cou­ple of years. Cur­rently some of their radio pro­grams are taped in broad­cast tele­vi­sion for­mat just in time for the real­iza­tion of their inevitable foray in the TV business.

Only when Fana starts trans­mis­sion that oth­ers will have a legal and moral ground at least to apply for the licenses. As to Fana, when and if they are capa­ble of launch­ing their TV, they don’t even bother to get a per­mit; that’s exactly what they did when plung­ing into the radio busi­ness in the wee hours of the cur­rent regime’s ascen­sion to power.

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