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.
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.
To 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!
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
A 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.