License to thrill
Amid the declaration of state of emergency and the subsequent cabinet reshuffle a TV broadcasting license has quietly been issued to three broadcasters. Same number of permits have also been doled out to FM stations, some with deep pocket connections. The licensing of TV would have been a landmark event had it not come too late and too little. The satellite broadcasting licenses were issued to the usual suspects though: Fana Broadcasting Corporate and Walta Information Center among them.
With the increasingly blurred lines between the party and government media, one wonders what will they do differently that’s not been tried by the fifty year old national broadcaster in the country. However, apart from keeping company to that station, one thing they will make with the utmost certainty is money.
A couple of months ago Woldu Yimesel, the general manager of FBC stated they will be on air as early as January of next year after a trial to be launched in the months ahead. Fana has been testing the water for quite sometime now. It was working with Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation and lately it is even producing radio programs with a view to airing them on TV. Plenty of backlogs to start with!
At the face of it, it looks as if the government felt well rooted —despite the civil unrests in many parts of the country which prompted the declaration of state of emergency—to let the electronics media have a field day. Unfortunately that is far from the truth. For starters, FBC and Walta are owned by Tigray People Liberation Front which currently runs the country in a different name. As such the move contravenes article 23 of the Broadcasting Service Proclamation that bar political parties from running stations. However, the contradictions do not end there. Incessant rhetoric against Egypt notwithstanding, the stations will be using the service of Nilesat, which is partially owned by that government.
While some got license, others got contracts worth millions. A party and a quasi publicly owned companies have been selected as exclusive manufacturers of digital to analog converter boxes locally known as Set Top Box. That is to help the digitization of television broadcasting. The digital to analogue converter box is used to help TV owners receive digital broadcasting signals from their older analogue sets.
Not long ago EBA claimed the transition would be over by 2016. Not that the switch is not over as we tiptoe to 2017, but even the production of the converters has not begun. To make matters worse, the main contractor is none other than the Metals and Engineering Corporation, the notoriously inefficient army industrial complex. When will the transition be over? Do the math.
But the silver lining here is the number of TV sets in the country that actually need the device will be far less than five million as EBA claims it to be. For one, most sets bought in the last couple of years may already be digital. Secondly, electronics manufacturers will not be making the obsolete receivers, if they haven’t done so by now. And add to that, people with satellite receivers can dodge that step altogether as the boxes are part of the package. If the dishes sprawling on top of the roofs around town is any indication, we are probably talking millions.
Be that as it may, for all the chatter about this transformation, it has nothing to do with the content of the broadcast. The whole idea of digitization, at its very basic, is about picking better video and audio signals rather than experiencing flickery screens. It is either crispy clear pictures or a black screen. As all things digital, it is binary — the best or nothing.
Ever since the regime change and the subsequent declaration of freedom of the press that went as far as copy-pasting article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the country’s private media have been confined to the print sector. Electronics was the preserve of the government or at best a privilege of its offshoots. Myriad excuses were given to shun the private sector out of that medium.The call by the public and the stakeholders for the liberalization of the sector was not heeded until 2007, when licenses were issued to two FM broadcasters. It had to take a decade for the government to let loose. However the reality is nobody actually needed a satellite broadcasting license. Almost half a dozen of them existed before the latest formality.
The problem actually was the liberalization of conventional terrestrial TV which, with each passing year, is heading to its extinction. Even after the digitization, which lately popped up as an excuse for delaying the process, the government still mandates broadcasters to use EBC’s infrastructure for transmission. Those hurdles would make acquiring that license utterly difficult. And when and where it will be allowed, terrestrial TV may be phasing out, if it is not on its last legs already.
On with satellite
The government’s tight grip on TV was broken by satellite broadcasting from overseas. The U.S based Ethiopian Satellite Television was the pioneer in that regard back in 2010. Then others like EBS, JTV, Kana, Nahoo followed suit, arguably with a tacit support of the government. They mainly focus on entertainment and interviews that come in different shapes and forms. Some are already leaving their footprints on popular culture. However the likes of ESAT and Oromia Media Network were on a tug-of-war with a state bent on burning up all its resources to knock them off of the spectrum. Now it is official! The state of emergency declared last month specifically mentions the two stations as harbingers of terrorism and tuning in comes with serious consequences. On the flip side though, it is a recognition of their influence that cannot be said of the government’s own stations that gobble up millions and got nothing to show for it.
As it stands now satellite broadcasting seems to be an open season for all who have the resources. The two broadcasters EBA issued licensing are shielded from the Authority’s scrutiny by virtue of their ownership. Instances abound: FBC never applied for radio license when it went on air one 1995 morning; Walta also precedes all the regulators. While it pretends to be a news agency focusing on gathering and disseminating information, for all intents and purposes, there is no difference between it and Fana. Simply put, just another money minting machine!
Going by their radio station, Fana TV can be predictable. But what will distinguish them from the other satellite crowd is current affairs. Politics will be abundant in their lineup. Ever heard the quote: “freedom of the press is guaranteed…to those who own one”? Well, Fana owns both the media and the government. Now you know the drill.