These 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!
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.”
Then 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.