“Ethiopia doesn’t detain journalists,” Dr Negeri Lencho

dr-negeri-lenchoThese days Dr Negeri Lencho, Minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office is making the rounds at various media houses: BBC, Deutsche Welle, VOA, foreign based ruling party friendly media, EBC are just to mention but a few.

As the new kid on the block in the cabinet of PM Hailemariam Desalegn, Dr Negeri is creating an impression that he is open to all who seek his attention. In comparison to his combatant predecessor, Negeri is plain and soft spoken, devoid of party lingo, and above all professor of journalism at Addis Ababa University. What better preparation for the post!

However the one thing he lacks most is the information itself. He could barely come up with conclusive answer about his former colleague at the AAU when he was arrested shortly after a trip to Brussels. Lawyers and activists fared far better, concerning Dr Merera Gudina’s arrest, than the central figure entrusted with communicating state information. At the VOA interview he even dared to say the “government was protecting Dr Merera.” It’s anybody’s knowledge who sought protection from whom.

After hours of interviews given to the aforementioned media, there is hardly a revelation or some kind of breakthrough that is worth mentioning. Instead his understanding of the incarceration of journalists is clearly a cause for concern, if not outrage.

Take no prisoners
It is obvious that Dr Negeri is departing from the tried and tested responses about imprisonment of journalists. Negeri either doesn’t care or know about the narratives.While his predecessors never denied the imprisonment of journalists, their scripted response was no journalist is jailed for their reporting or writings. But the other day in his Meet EBC interview Dr Negeri broke with tradition by making a sweeping statement: “Ethiopia doesn’t detain journalists.”

Unless journalists are of a different stock to the academician, at any given time Ethiopian prisons host journalists as their favorite patrons. Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Temesgen Desalegn are not off-the-cuff bloggers but seasoned journalists and publishers who are serving anywhere between 18 to three years sentences, on charges stemming from the clichéd terrorism to the more outlandish attempt “to change the mindset of the youth.” Yonatan Tesfaye, Ananya Sori and Befekadu Hailu are another young batch of journalists and bloggers who are detained; matter of fact some have been arrested shortly after Dr Negeri took office. Their charges is probably in the making, needless to say terrorism is the favorite card to be picked any time.

Sources, sources, sources…
Much to the chagrin of the spokesperson, the Committee to Protect Journalists came up this week with a report accusing the government of putting 16 journalists behind bars, that made the country the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, just after Egypt and Eritrea.

Dr Negeri’s issues with rights campaigners is that they don’t disclose sources of information when they gather the data. He insisted on Meet EBC that the sources should be disclosed. Well, everybody wishes that would be the case ideally. But we don’t need to dig deep to understand the consequences of contacting rights groups or media houses.
•    Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress was slapped with four-year prison term days after he met representatives of Amnesty International. Now he is in another round of terrorism charade.
•    Last year a woman, in the drought stricken corner of northern Ethiopia, gave interview to a BBC TV journalist Clive Myrie saying people were dying of hunger.Then hell broke loose!Ethiopian Ambassador to UK, the government spokesman Getachew Reda, the Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom took turns lashing out at the British journalist for his intention to “tarnish the image of the country.” And district party operatives tracked down the poor peasant to force her recant the testament on Amhara TV.
•    Days after the declaration of state of emergency words were that Zone 9 blogger Befekadu Hailu was arrested allegedly for talking to VOA, the same broadcaster Dr Negeri had a marathon interview with just the other week; add to that the voices of many individuals on VOA Amharic and Afaan Oromo are changed to conceal their identity.

Then, why should it be difficult to understand the concerns of citizens who want to remain anonymous when tipping off rights violations. If Dr Negeri wants to get to the bottom of the issue, he should look at the allegations not the sources; analyze court records about the charges; can even go bolder by taking steps talking to jailed journalists and bloggers. That will make him a genuine change agent!

As things stand now the one thing Dr Negeri may have an impact is in the chairmanship of the board of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, which by default comes with the new post. There is no more opportune moment than this for him to put his mark on the national broadcaster by giving it a semblance of a news media rather than condemning it to a mere ruling party propaganda outfit.

May theory and practice come in close harmony. Amen!


Bracing for Fana TV knowing what’s in store

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.

Talking digital

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.

Going Private

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.

Blurred lines

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.

Ethiopia: The cyber attack that probably never was

Thwarting an attack 

Every year Information Network Security Agency (INSA) comes up with reports of cyber attack attempts on the nation’s infrastructures. Last year it claimed to have foiled forty. This year, according to the report presented to the Parliament,165 attacks have been intercepted. Good for them!

online-mediaProblem is INSA is short on specifics. It never says which organization was the target and who the hackers were. And nobody in the Parliament dares to inquire. On a second thought, the director, Major General Tekleberhan Woldearegay could have put the figures at a thousand, who would challenge him anyway?

The facts on the ground, though, tell a different story. In recent years scores of Ethiopian websites have been hacked; their pages vandalized and defaced:The Auditor General,Ethiopian News Agency,the Ministry of Defense,the Red Cross Society and surprise, surprise, the sole Internet service provider of the country Ethio Telecom, to name but a few. It’s anybody’s guess what the Agency has been up to. Recently the National Higher Education Entrance Exam was stolen and posted on social media which prompted the Ministry of Education to postpone the exam for a later date. Is that outside of INSA’s scope of activities? Just wondering!

But when it comes to keeping tabs on dissidents, it leaves no stones unturned. Leaked reports show that the security outfit does whatever it takes just to snoop on the computers of what it calls “high value targets.” A transaction receipt of one million dollar was released on the social media for everybody to see. That is hardly defending the local cyber infrastructure!

Speaking of defense, INSA has achieved infamy by its foreign clients for mediocrity than proficiency. An official of the Hacking Team, the Italian company that provided service, wrote in internal memo: “The issue is their incompetent use of [HackingTeam] tools”.

Rather than securing the cyber space, INSA is engaged in blocking websites and tracking alternative voices on social media. Yonatan Tesfaye, a rising activist, is one such example. He has been in detention since December 2015 for his Facebook posts, despite countless claims by officials including the prime minister that no body is jailed for writing.

Like its industrial counterpart the Metals and Engineering Corporation(METEC),INSA is chewing more than it can swallow. Both are rooted in the military and led almost exclusively by Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) top guns.Freight tracking,installing security cameras,mapping,digitization of broadcasting system,policing telecom fraud,installing anti virus softwares; simply INSA is stretching its tentacles in every direction, making a number of public companies look redundant in its wake.

Hacking INSA
Last year when the Italian surveillance technology provider Hacking Team was itself hacked and all its documents dumped on Wikileaks, we were in for a little surprise. It is not that the Ethiopian government blocks websites or jams electronic media that do not necessarily ascribe to its ideology. That is a decade old experience people learned to grapple with. But here the details are startling how the Agency walks the extra mile to intrude into the devices of individuals who didn’t shy away from expressing their disdain for the government. We don’t know whether the expenses are worth the information sought. These are some of those correspondences with the vendors:

Hacking Team’s complaint
There is an issue with our customer in Addis Abeba. Although the customer obtained several results with our system, and despite the initial difficulties to control the behaviour of the target while trying to infect him from remote, it seems that they are still looking at us like the ones who can magically solve every issue.

An email for a transaction which later was paid
As you know, as per your request, we originally issued an invoice for the whole amount due ($1,000,000 Invoice n. 056/2011). The items included all our deliveries: hardware,software licence and professional services. That invoice was presented to the bank for the first payment but till today we didn’t get any feedback.

Major Biniam Tewolde’s frantic plea
Dear HT[Hacking Team],We cannot afford to lose our targets. this is not totally a possibility.You have to find a solution not to lose our targets. Even we can arrange our own anonymizers, but we do not lose any target.
Since we cannot update the scout in about 6 of our targets , our operation is highly negatively affected.

When materials linking Hacking Team to selling of spying tools to repressive regimes started to appear on the media, the Milan based company wants some issues to be straightened out and Major Biniam responds:
Greetings Mr. Biniam,would you please give a detailed explanation regarding the following allegations? https://citizenlab.org/2015/03/hacking-team-reloaded-us-based-ethiopian-journalists-targeted-spyware http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/03/08/ethiopia-digital-attacks-intensify
The targets we tried to exploit are members of a terrorist organization called Ginbot7 based on our parliament declaration. Ginbot7 is a terrorist organization, based on the parliament declaration, trying to terrorize the country , destabilize the country and destroy the constitution of the country. Neamin Zeleke is one of the top leaders of Ginbot7. We targeted him as top leader of Ginbot7 , not as top leader of media organization called ESAT. For us , Neamin Zeleke is one of the top leaders of a terrorist organization , not a journalist.

One email congratulates the Major
Dear Biniam,we are very happy you were successful in getting a high value target!

While we haven’t yet learned what INSA had foiled so far or what information collected, we were however able to establish the following:

The people who actually were trained by the Hacking Team in Milan to do the nitty gritty of spying on their own citizens or Ethiopian born foreign residents are:
Berhanu Girmay Desta
Godif Nigus Tesfau
Seblewoin Tsegaye Demessie, who did her Masters in computer science in Hunan University, China, specializing in concealing secret information in images and videos (the technical term is steganography). She can be reached at: woints@yahoo.com
The mastermind and the chief architect of all this is Major Biniam Tewolde. Biniam has since become deputy director and vice board chairman of Ethio Telecom. In one post he is introduced as “responsible for the cyber security for Ethiopia government [sic]” He can be reached at biniamtewolde@yahoo.com

House keeping
Another startling finding from the trove of materials on Wikileaks is that INSA employees use their personal email accounts to conduct government business. The agency may only have a fraction of the correspondences with the Italian company for which it wasted over a million dollar tax payers’ money as emails were exchanged through personal accounts. In more sane situations this should have brought a criminal investigation tantamount to stealing state secrets.While presenting his report to the parliament the other week, the director general was criticizing other government offices for lack of cyber awareness. Let’s not forget that they have a 30-minute weekly radio program on ruling party owned Fana FM where they preach the gospel of cyber.

If the man “responsible for the cyber security for Ethiopia government” cannot secure his own communication, it’s baffling to think how the Agency can be entrusted with a nation’s infrastructure.Housekeeping is clearly in order.
Check the Wikileaks pages using these links:

Get rich or end up in jail; the tale of an Ethiopian intel

Convicting an intel
woldeselassie-woldemichaelAfter almost three years of proceedings, former head of domestic intelligence at the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Woldeselassie Woldemichael, has finally been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison just the other week. Doubts linger as to the real motives of the charges. A falling out with colleagues cannot entirely be ruled out. After all, nobody out of the tight-knit band of brothers could have known about the misdeeds. It has all the signs of a domestic affair situation.

For reasons unknown, the stories of the trial for the large part were covered by ruling party owned and affiliated media: Walta Information Center(WIC), Fana Broadcasting Corporate(FBC)and the Reporter. In the good old days Walta was addressing the accused as “senior researcher on peace and security” occasionally quoting his “words of wisdom” in terror related stories.

We’ve heard that before
Woldeselassie, along with two of his siblings (if it rings a bell, you got it!),was charged with grand corruption,namely,using public office for personal gains and accumulating wealth beyond his means. If you think about it, owning expensive properties in the posh suburbs of the capital; hoarding prime lands; opening multiple accounts under various names by officials and the army top brass is a stuff of legend.

One charge brought by the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission(FEAC) is particularly interesting: misleading a top official(currently minister of state)into printing his work entitled Terrorism in Ethiopian and Horn of Africa. Little did we know the security chief had the calibre to take on such global issues in the absence of information about his academic or professional credentials. To add salt to the wound, he also forced scores of enterprises to buy hundreds and thousands of books taking cash in advance and never delivering the products. In the most anecdotal fashion, Et Fruit, a public enterprise responsible for the most mundane task of distributing fruit and vegetables is among the major sponsors of the publication!

Indications are Beyene Gebremeskel,former director general of Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency (PPESA), seems to have cowered in the face of the mighty security official. Not only did he give a green light for the production in at least three of the printing houses he oversees, but also according to the charging documents, might have involved in editing the manuscripts. No charges brought against him.

Handle with care
After the court passed a guilty verdict, the consideration of mitigating factors clearly shows how some citizens are handled with special care. The defendant didn’t let the opportunity slip without mentioning his involvement in the “struggle” to topple the Marxist regime gone a quarter of a century ago.The judge bought it! Translation: being a member of Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) can help reduce prison terms! Paradoxically, the publication which is at the center of the crime has also helped lessen the gravity of the sentence as the court concurred with the defense the work has created awareness about terrorism in the society.

The roots
Publishing books and squeezing companies to buy them has helped some ardent party hacks make quick money. Almost all who wrote the story of Meles had no difficulty disposing of the books to schools, various institutions and local government offices. One most notorious example is a Colonel Eyasu Mengesha who cobbled together a “biography” of the dictator launched in a pompous ceremony at the Sheraton Addis in the presence of the then head of state. A couple of others followed suit making good fortune in the process. The late head of Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) had a knack for churning out volumes and twisting the arms of government agencies into buying them. In that regard, it is hardly surprising that another TPLF official comes up to claim his share of the pie.

Woldeselassie’s actions are typical instances of abuse of power and lack of accountability at the highest level. The war against corruption is hopelessly lost. FEAC which is in its last legs,happily so, after a series of legislation took their prosecutorial power away from them, may take credit for successfully bringing a criminal to book. However, without risking to sound cynic, it is the squabbling rather than the actions of the dormant government watchdogs that eventually will bring the corrupt officials down.

EBC: Fifty years of solitude

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…
ethiopian-broadcasting-corporationThen 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.

Ethiopian Media Council in need of counseling

The much talked about Ethiopian Media Council has been established by the all too familiar faces. The organizers claim that it has taken them a decade to achieve their objective. While it is not that undesirable to have the council, neither is it something that the country’s press is particularly dying for.The most important issue being creating a media environment where all voices can be heard without fear or intimidation.

No one denies that a genuine media council would have helped journalists to be monitored and regulated by their own peers rather than by overzealous law enforcement officials, as is the case in the country. Alas, the newly formed assembly doesn’t give much hope for optimism either.

mimi-sebhatuTo begin with, the person who wants to go down in history as the founder of the Council has been instrumental in abetting the witch hunt of journalists by the government.Their weekly program “Kib Terebeza” (Round table) is all about vilifying critical voices whether in the media or in politics. Even on the eve of the gathering, the show was on all out war against a known opposition leader Yilkal Getnet. The other founding members are either supporters or operatives of the ruling party, making it hard for them to be viewed impartial in the eyes of the public, much less by fellow journalists.

Even without those paradoxes, the formation was mired in controversy. Most of the media in the country have boycotted it. Budding private newspapers, professional associations, civic society and other crucial elements were markedly absent. As to the online media, the Council was unequivocal in excluding them, though most of the participants’ media outfits maintain a steady web presence. That means, when and where the Council starts to work, it can only oversee the affairs of its member enterprises, most of which, by the way, are indistinguishable – Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), Zami FM, The Reporter, Ethio-Channel and like-minded flocks. And the source of its finances is barely ironed out. Lest we forget, who pays the piper calls the tune!

EBC’s solid presence was rather awkward,if not undesirable. An establishment notorious for its persistence in calling for arrests of journalists can hardly be proponent of media ethics. Its curiously titled series of Akeldama and Harakat were sowing fear among the private media. Unfortunately, about a half-dozen of the participants were related to EBC one way or the other. It begins with Getachew Reda who heads the board of the corporation.The others didn’t necessarily spoke for EBC. They masqueraded as representatives of various unions. And the deputy general manager was elected secretary of the Council. No wonder then the company rushed to air a piece entitled “New chapter for the media.”

If the gathering of a bunch of bewildered media hacks heralds the onset of a “new chapter,” then  mass communication in the country has really hit rock bottom. Time to save it!

BBC and Ethiopia, here we go again!

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in a thug of war with the Ethiopian government.  The last time the two locked horns was around five years ago when an investigative reporting exposed how aid money was siphoned off to buy arms by the then rebels when the country suffered the worst drought in the mid 1980s.

Last week a BBC correspondent, Clive Myrie, had produced a four-minute piece about the drought currently affecting over eight million people. The TV broadcast included interviews with some locals who bore the brunt of the catastrophe and who said people have already died.

The report apparently irked the government. First to react was the Ethiopian embassy in London which always feel they are duty bound to respond to BBC because of their physical proximity to Bush House. They lashed out at the report calling it “sensational news broadcast.”

bbc-world-serviceThen a string of others followed in quick succession. An official from the Prime Minister’s office told the local Sheger FM that BBC’s report was “intended to tarnish the image of the country.” He explained at length how El Nino was to blame for the calamity. The El Nino narrative seems to be the most agreed upon explanation by the officials for the current situation. When Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom was interviewed on the Voice of America, he never missed a chance to dwell on it. This same narrative was repeatedly told in all the news and other stories aired on the local media. To drive the point home, some politicians including Dr Teodros had no qualms comparing the situation with the drought in California.

Over the weekend the Bahir Dar based Amhara Television (ATV), which by and large is an extension of the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (formerly ETV), came up with a report accusing the BBC coverage of misconstruing the interviewees statements.

With the one-to-five country-wide controlling mechanism, it didn’t take long to the crew of ATV to locate the folks who gave interviews. They were made to retract the statements on the regional TV. What makes the case awkward for the locals is they don’t even know what the BBC had reported as it is inconceivable for them to have electricity, let alone TV, and even more so cable networks.

It is a common practice in the country to go after people who meet foreign media or rights groups. In 2011 a discussion with Amnesty International cost Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress four years in prison.

So BBC and Ethiopian officials may not see eye to eye for some time to come. Clive may not get his accreditation renewed, hardly the first foreign correspondent to walk that line. As to the villagers, if appearance is anything to go by, then they have nothing to lose except their misery.

Redwan Hussein is out; look who’s coming to town

The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?

But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.

When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.

To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.

redwan-husseinFor a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.

It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.

Talking GCAO

GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.

The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.

Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.

Party talks

All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.

While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.

Zone 9: keeping the saga alive and well

Barely weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Aljazeera that his “government has a clear evidence” that the Zone 9 bloggers “are connected with one of the terrorist groups,” words came that five bloggers and journalists: Asmamaw Woldegiorigis, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun,Tesfalem Weldyes and Zelalem Kiberet were released abruptly. Along with them, award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu was also set free. Reeyot, who has been in jail since 2011, was probably months away from fully serving her five years sentence even without the customary parole which she declined to accept as it came with strings attached.

Some media claim that the release is intended to please US President Barack Obama who is scheduled to visit the country over the weekend. The government denies that saying they are simply extending “magnanimity,” to borrow the explanation of Redwan Hussein, the head of communication affaires office.

zone9There were stories some just leaving the prisons with their pajamas on; some not sure as who to call and where to go. After 14 months spent in jails , the Ministry of Justice citing its authority given by some proclamation “decided to withdraw the charges,” according to the government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal. The ill-conceived and haphazard steps of the ministry created sigh as well as confusion. The released told media that they are not fully content as half of their colleagues are still behind bars on the same clueless charges. Their lawyer Ameha Mekonnen has a more professional concern. He told the local Amharic weekly Addis Admass that there was a precedent with the now imprisoned journalist Temesgen Desalegn whereby charges were reinstated after they had been dropped.

Then on July 20, many expected the courts to let the other four go under some pretext. Alas, that was not to be! The 19th bench of the Federal High Court citing technicalities adjourned the case for end of July. As part of the blogging ensemble charged with the same offense have been released, moving forward it is anybody’s guess what legal sense does the whole process make.

The adjournment has just added to the drama; first, Obama — if at all his upcoming visit caused the release — will have left the country by then, easing the pressure on the government; second, the more lengthy the trial, the likelihood of being forgotten looms.

Otherwise the inconsistency of the trial coupled with a judicial system considered an extension of the governing party makes the final outcome utterly unpredictable. Hoping for the best is all we can afford at this time for Abel Wabela, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu and Natnael Feleke.

Five things learned from the latest Ethiopian election

The 2015 edition of the Ethiopian general election — the fifth of its kind since the current rulers took command of state power — is happily over. The results were so predictable and inconsequential that a government leaning private weekly couldn’t hide the apparent. “No other national elections held over the past two decades have a result as obvious as the one held today.” International media had long come out with similar views. The Economist’s latest issue incidentally carried a story about Ethiopia, there the elections were just a side note dubbed “uneventful…with a predetermined outcome.”

The curious case of the professor
professor-merga-bekanaBut the hoopla surrounding the elections unwittingly showed the true colours of the entire system, some new and some tired. Head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) famously said the ruling party doesn’t need the support of his institution to win an election, when some raised concern about the Board’s impartiality. Lately he has come out even more strongly, his combative edge getting the better of him. And those who casted doubt about the fairness of the polls should be “ashamed of themselves,” lashed out the former veterinary science professor over the weekend.

The new face of censorship
Censorship has scores of manifestations in the country. In its latest iteration electronics media were given a carte blanche to censor the contents of election campaign materials that representatives of contesting parties were supposed to air. While a number of candidates were eager not to miss their five minutes of fame on the national media, those who took the matter more seriously decided to quit the exercise all together.

The Interview
Probably one of the most memorable part of the election was the Prime Minister’s interview on the Al Jazeera network. The Premier sat down with the former BBC news anchor Martine Dennis. The event had some intense moments reminiscent of the BBC’s Hard Talk host Stephen Sackur’s face off with Hailemariam’s predecessor two elections ago. Asked whether he wields real power: “Even during PM Meles era and period this country has been deciding collectively in the system.” Seriously? Martine got on Hailemariam’s nerves when she called the judiciary an extension of the government.“This is an insult for an independent judiciary system of Ethiopia,” the PM retorted. In his attempt to paint a rosy picture of the administration, the clichés of “developmental democratic state” and the rhetoric of neoliberalism were in full abundance. Any criticism against the system is a conspiracy of “the neoliberal paradigm and prescription,” whatever that meant. It was also interesting to hear him talk about the Zone 9 bloggers who have been detained since April 2014 on terrorism charges. “My government has a clear evidence that they are connected with one of the terrorist groups I will not tell you now.” Heaven only knows how long will it take till the “clear evidence” makes it to the court.

Blame game
The ruling party’s complete sweep is creating discomfort within the party’s rank. Now they are in the business of damage control. Some of the party’s stalwarts are coming out in various media to bash the non-existent opposition calling it fragmented and only showing up during election times. Having jailed and driving the better part of the opposition out of the country, TPLF/EPRDF has only itself to blame for the embarrassment of a 100 percent victory. “They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.” Hail to the Poet!