Tag Archives: bereket simon

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.

Is the anti-corruption crusade for real?

Around 60 people have been arrested on suspicion of various charges that can be bundled as corruption. The detention of Melaku Fenta, the Director General of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA) with the rank of a minister; his powerful deputy, along with a coterie of others, has caught the public by surprise. Businessmen also made part of the five dozen suspects awaiting trial. Notable among them are Ketema Kebede and Mehreteab Abraha, both of whom familiar to the courts and the detention centers. The last time Mihreteab, brother of Seye Abraha, faced the judges he was in the company of his family.

feacThe swift action of the Federal Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (FEAC) to detain the suspects exposed their ill preparedness. They are still pleading with the courts to give them more time to investigate cases. The courts also have no problem granting their wishes. Judging by what has transpired so far, it is in the tradition of FEAC to first detain and then investigate, putting the cart before the horse. The Country’s constitution is vague as to how detainees can remain in prison pending investigation. It merely says: “no longer than the time strictly required.” How long that “time” is anybody’s guess. While these details may have been mentioned somewhere in the penal code or in other rules, their current application tramples upon the rights of suspects. Furthermore, the number one suspect’s legal entitlement has already been violated. Melaku Fenta is a member of the Addis Ababa City Administration Council, and as such he had immunity from prosecution. For now nobody seems to care.

Current rulers should have taken a page from the “teachings” of their mentor. It seems the “legacy” has not been inherited in its entirety. In 2001 when the late Prime Minister wanted to lock up his rivals, he asked the rubber stamp Parliament to revoke the immunity of several of his brothers-in-arms. The Parliament acted accordingly in a blink of an eye. Weeks later Seye Abraha was in the dock!

The Commission

This is the first high level corruption case that came from the controversial anti-corruption watchdog in over a decade. The last time they hit the headlines when Seye Abraha was put in prison that took six years of his life. For many he was the raison d’être of the FEAC itself.

The rhetoric that FEAC is the result of the Civil Service Reform notwithstanding, the Commission was largely an outcome of the power struggle among the hardcore of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It was established just a month after the split within the Party’s leadership. The message couldn’t be clearer when the Commissioner was directly appointed by the Prime Minister himself. In March 2001 TPLF splits; May – FEAC established; July – Seye is arrested. Could all that be coincidence?

The business of the State

One of the reasons the public is not sure of the real motives of the FEAC’s latest moves, there are so many officials, civilians and in uniforms alike, who are said to be making huge fortunes out of their official positions. The Indian Ocean Newsletter mentioned scores of ministers as having various business interests. We don’t know if the businesses are fair game or whether they are registered with the FEAC as the law requires.

The Newsletter report published in 2009 listed the business of top government officials who own fleet of lorries, hotels, factories, rental buildings in the posh area of the Capital, import and export businesses, trading in plots of land which is particularly popular among the army top brass. Ethiopia’s ambassador in China Seyom Mesfin, Minister of Information Bereket Simon, Army Chief of Staff Samora Younis, the Federal Police Chief Workineh Gebeyehu, Addisu Legesse, the widow of the late Prime Minister, Azeb Mesfin are among the officials cited in the business hall of fame.

Some officials are even more blunt:
•    The speaker of the Parliament Abadula Gemeda for example handed over one of his villas to his party the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) saying it will “distract” him from the struggle.
•    Former Civil Service minister Junedin Sado’s spouse was reported to have been caught taking ETB 50,000 from the Saudi Embassy in Addis Ababa ostensibly to help her build a mosque.
•    Long time President of the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State Yaregal Aisheshim and every member of his family, even minors, were owners of plots of lands in various parts of the Country including Addis Ababa. Thirteen years at the helm gave him ample time to accumulate wealth that can outlive him. He was getting kickbacks from most constructions in the State that let him launch several business of his own.
•    A government minister can write a book and asks a businessman to pick up the bill, who dares to say no? When Bereket Simon, the de facto number two person at the time, wanted to bash his nemesis Dr Berhanu Nega, he approached the Ethiopian born Saudi tycoon Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi. The billionaire not only paid for the publication of the “memoir” in Kenya, but also threw a lavish party for the launch of the book at the Sheraton Addis.
Does “conflict of interest” have any meaning in Ethiopia or for the anti-corruption crusader?

Is this for real?

The illegal capital flight out of the country is also staggering. According to a report by Global Financial Integrity, Ethiopia lost close to $12 billion since 2000 to illicit financial outflows. The amount is too huge to ignore. What has FEAC done to curb this scourge?

These are some of the reasons why the Commission will be hard pressed to convince the public that it indeed means business this time around. However, they can also turn this opportunity to win the public’s trust by truly looking into the legitimate concerns of citizens. Otherwise, they will only open the door for more speculation with each arrest.

ETV: Pirating the game

Originally posted on Feb.4, 2013

The Walia Antelopes

The 29th edition of the African Cup of Nations has been historic for Ethiopians as it was a once in a generation event. The country managed to qualify for the tournament for the first time in 31 years. All the beautiful and colorful fans by their side, the endangered Walia Antelopes seemed to miss the mountains. Failing to make it to the quarters, they rushed home over the weekends to a cheering audience. Their performance attracted a mixed reaction. Some were marveled: “They are a very good side and they should not be taken for granted”;others were not so impressed. “Statistically the tournament’s worst team,” they quipped.

As the hypes surrounding the team’s participation subsides, raising some issues that were left as background noise are in order.

The other game

ethiopian-broadcasting-corporationA day before the Walia’s first fixture, ETV reported that it may not broadcast the tournament due to unresolved licensing issues. It cited its disagreement with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) television broadcast license holder LC2 as the main reason. It was required to pay ETB 18 mil. (around a million dollar). It was not clear whether the fee was for the whole tournament or selected matches. ETV didn’t give much detail.The two odd minute news item concerning the issue mainly talked about the problem the Nigerians faced due to the high cost of the broadcast rights. It explained at length the reactions of the head of the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria. The West African nation was asked to pay ten times more than what Ethiopia had to. That may be attributed to the different media landscapes of the countries. Some posted their views on Ethiotube online video sharing site:

“18million birr is equivalent to 18 cobra cars for the cadres.
Just sell the cobras and pay for the football hungary people.”

“I am supporter of the government when it comes something positive
such as ABAY DAM. But I have no patience to hear such nonsense from ETV.’’

“ETV will broadcast for sure, they want a suspense!!!”

“18 million birr is very small for a country growing 11% every year!”

Things went out of control when the sole national TV station decided to air the match of the Walias against Zambia without prior permission. LC2 was quick to react. As the match was progressing it run tickers through the screen indicating that ETV was broadcasting the game without paying the fee and it took no time in labeling the move “an act of piracy.”  The commentators picked the issue to spice up the monotonous football talk. An ETV news caster who doubles as head of sports and entertainment sections told the Amharic weekly Addis Admas that due to the high cost, the agency was still in the process of negotiation even while the second fixture was well underway. The official denied that ETV broadcasted the match without the consent of LC2.

What ever the official had to say the tickers and some of the press releases sent to news media by the Benin based LC2 indicate a foul play. What is even more surprising, instead of finding common ground to resolve the issue, ETV launched an attack over the weekend. Half way into the tournament agreement has not been reached. The monopoly released a little more information saying that it is willing to offer ETB 8 mil. as opposed to the 18 mil it was asked to pay. While they are still open for negotiation ETV dubbed the rate as a “day light robbery.” Robbery or not, the national monopoly raked in millions from the hundreds of commercials it run without a competitor in the course of the tournament.

What goes around…?

It may be ironic that in 2010 ETV accused two of its long time journalists of copyright infringement. The journalists were first accused of selling video materials to Al Jazeera Television Network. In the words of government communication head Bereket Simon they were caught “red handed.” Then for some reasons prosecutors changed the charges and the two were found guilty of copyright infringement. In any event, the journalists languished in Kaliti prison for over a year before they were set free, eventually loosing their job. If ETV has such a tough stance on copyright infringements, it should have led by example.

Getting the picture

ETV is not new to using unauthorized footage in its broadcast. Sometimes they cover the labels on the screen and most of the time they don’t even bother. There are several instances of movies shown on Saturday night that were simply rented from DVD stores.
When ETV shops for various movies and TV series it usually finds it unaffordable to obtain latest releases. That is when it resorts to the less glorious moves.

The company’s financial muscle is a reflection of the country’s economic level. The station which merged with Ethiopian radio in 1995 to be called Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) has a budget of around ETB 200 million (a little more than $10mil). That annual budget is sometimes less than a yearly salary of top western TV news anchors. As such, the station cannot be expected to compete with the Middle Eastern satellite channels who have since become the staples of many urbanite households in the country.

In all fairness, most of the time the agency acquires international footage legally. The country spends hundreds of thousands in foreign currency to pay for Reuters Television, Canal France International and scores of others for international news and weekly programming. It gets both the scripts and the video of the day’s top international news: from hardcore politics to sports and light entertainment issues. Whether ETV uses these footages effectively is a completely different affair.

While piracy is rampant and manifests itself in a number of forms in the country, the fact that ETV is involved in such international scale is deplorable. With 50 years of experience under its belt, the latest introduction of its name to the outside world is no less than a disgrace to itself and the country at large.

To print, or not to print: that is the question

Originally posted on Jan.7, 2013

Last week Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn informed the nation that the country has about 200 printing houses; and kept on to assure the public that there is no need to worry about issues related to publication of newspapers. He was responding to a concern raised by the sole opposition member of parliament that printing houses were intimidated to take orders from private newspapers. The PM advised that the papers should ask themselves why the printers are not willing to do the job.

Printing houses have become the most efficient instruments in muzzling the Ethiopian private press. The major ones have been given a discreet order not to publish papers that are critical of the government.

Former Ethiopian President and currently an opposition party leader Dr Negasso Gidada explained to VOA Amharic about the challenges they faced trying to publish their party official organ Finote Netsanet: “We tried both the government and the privately owned printing houses. They are afraid to publish our materials. Some even change their mind after receiving part of the payment.”

The top printing houses in the country are either government or ruling party owned. The privately owned do not have the capacity to publish periodicals on regular basis; and when they do, they prefer to play it safe by dealing with those who focus on showbiz, sports or medical issues.

berhanena-selam-printing-pressFor all the double digit economic growth for the past two decades, it is only one printing press – established close to a century ago – that has the capacity to churn out dailies and other periodicals. As a result,Berhanena Selam Printing Press (BSPP) like all the government media outlets is under strict control of the ruling party. No surprises that the board chair is a top EPRDF hand who used to be vice minister of information.

Rehearsing the script

Using the printing press to stifle the media is not new. In October 2005 after TPLF unleashed its Agazi battalion to massacre close to 200 civilians, it turned to the private press by imprisoning journalists and shutting down the papers. BSPP were instructed to monitor the contents of the papers they print. That censorship made it difficult for the remaining papers to survive.

Couple years after the brutal suppression, the government felt secure and eased the censorship; subsequently other papers started to emerge.

However, when the private media started to report on the health situation of the late PM, the government resorted to its age old tactics of making the private media’s life hard.

Now it has become even more systematic that officials of the Ministry of Justice took it upon themselves to appear in person at the printing house to make their points clear. The government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal, a lawyer by trade, spent a great deal of time explaining Ethiopian commercial law which was supposed to provide legal excuse to the censorship. He told the Associated Press that the printers have a right to refuse publishing “rebellious material and materials that are in violation [of] any written law.”

The manager of BSPP, who has been in the business for decades and by all assumptions was supposed to be the first person to address the issues didn’t even bother to utter a word since the controversy started with the impounding of the last edition of the Amharic weekly Feteh in July 2012.

And to the irony…

While the printing companies turn down the request of private newspapers, officials like the information chief Bereket Simon are not sure of the printers efficiency. The man who talks of the economy growing at “the speed of cheetah” is not confident enough in the ability of the publishers to take on his book. He had to look for printers in Nairobi to publish his “memoir” written in Amharic. The irony doesn’t end there though. The nation’s flagship carrier who takes pride in being all Ethiopian, prints their inflight magazine Selamta in Dubai and Nairobi. No wonder if some people around town seek the service of printing houses in India for their wedding invitation cards. Unfortunately those who are ready to make use of the available resources are loathed by the powers who reign by sheer force. Isn’t the pen mightier that the sword after all.Hail to the pen!