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.