Tag Archives: ESAT

Thinking out loud on Dr Merera Gudina

Photo op

The long time professor of Ethiopian and African politics at the Addis Ababa University and leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress was picked up by security forces upon his arrival from a speaking engagement in Brussels at the beginning of December 2016. According to the state run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr Merera Gudina was arrested “for breaching article two of the first directive (of the state of emergency) that prohibits any contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization.” In a classic case of Ethiopian law enforcement—arrest then investigate—he had to remain behind bars for three months before charges were finally brought. As if to give credence to the case, Dr Berhanu Nega, Jawar Mohammed and the foreign based media companies of Ethiopian Satellite Television and Oromia Media Network have been added to the accused list.

Though this one came at a later stage in his political life, Merera is not new to life in prison. He spent seven years of his youth in jail for his role as a MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) organizer when that party fell out with the military dictatorship.

For the last two decades Merera has been treading a fine line to avoid prison, a universal destiny of the country’s political opponents worthy of the name. His fate, however, was sealed with a photo shot seems to have purposefully been posted on the social media. It shows the veteran academic sitting in between leader of the outlawed opposition Ginbot 7, Dr Berhanu Nega and the Rio Olympic marathon silver medallist-turned activist, Feyisa Lilesa. Truth be told, the OFC leader looks tense in that picture, hardly an indicator of cordiality, much less a coconspirator. May be looks are not deceiving after all!

The naked truth is: the three were speakers at the hearings; equally important Berhanu and Merera were activists since their student days in the mid seventies; should we mention both were professors of their respective trades at AAU?

The born again 

Merera tiptoed into the nation’s politics in the mid 1990s. He likes to say dragged into it. He may be referring to a series of articles and the ensuing back and forth with the leaders and supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front in the now defunct Amharic monthly Tobia magazine. That debate appears to have been one of the reasons for him to come up with a newly minted outfit, the Oromo National Congress.The party was formed with a craft of an astute politician that was giving the identity driven ruling pack a run for the money. Not only did ONC borrow part of their name from the legendary African National Congress but also espoused the idea of ‘one man one vote’ that served a rallying cry for the struggle in the apartheid South Africa.

When ONC made strides in the 2005 general elections, it provoked the ire of the incumbent whose long hands triggered infighting among the party ranks.Then the Electoral Board interfered and awarded the name to a splintered group. Merera had to steer the ship with a different name. Fortunately, his personality outweighed the wrangling to draw even more support. While his contribution in the Parliament is up for debate, the one-term member was famous for his sarcasm and humour that kept the sleepy House lively when he was in attendance.

Say what you will but the 61 year old is among a handful of public intellectuals whose ideas have transcended the bounds of lecture halls. His PHD thesis ‘Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalism and the Quest for Democracy,1960 – 2000’ was published to the wider readership. The highly acclaimed 2013 semi-memoir ‘The complexity of Ethiopian politics and looking back through the years’(in Amharic) was reprinted multiple times. Scores of reviews and counter claims by people who got mention in the publication added to the controversy. His active political engagement, the writings, the interviews he gives, and his close to thirty years teaching experience at his alma mater—which ended after months of public acrimony over contract and credential issues— makes him an illustrious campaigner.

A day in court 

The statements of the charge is a lesson in sloppiness at the prosecutor’s office. A sentence can go for a full two pages without a stop, making it difficult to comprehend the specific offenses committed. The stereotypical: incitement, overthrowing constitutional system, outrage against constitution didn’t disappoint either, all on board.

The first charge simply makes Dr Merera the mastermind of all the protests that took place since November 2015. What is baffling is why the government had to wait for over a year to bring him to book? Why was he never charged while in the country? This is where the overseas travel comes in handy with a picture to prove the otherwise lame case. So it was not the alleged communication with ‘terrorists’ per se that was important but the opportunity it provided to justify the arrest.

The immediate cause for the government move “contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization” got a faint mention in the charge stating in one line “he met with the second suspect Professor Berhanu on November 11, 2016, in Belgium” and that was exactly the day when the three addressed the European Parliament on the situation in Ethiopia. In other words, Merera was charged for a sitting arrangement that probably is not his own making. And from the list of 28 evidences none is about the contact between him and Ginbot 7.

Some of the charges are ludicrous, to say the least.Even doubting the security forces assertions comes with consequences.The fact that the academician didn’t buy claims of bravado in an interview with the Voice of America some three years ago turned out to be a criminal offense.

What’s next

From the outset it seems the case is going to keep dragging for a while. Merera has been denied bail, though still fighting that one in the supreme court. In a country where all institutions are the extension of the executive, it is inconceivable to think the judiciary will be any different. While giving the courts the benefit of the doubt is apparently what the defense is set out to do, this is hardly a criminal matter that can be solved on the benches of the High Court.


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.

Feteh: Shooting the messenger

Originally posted on Aug.27, 2012

So editor of the leading Amharic weekly Feteh,Temesgen Desalegn is a “flight risk.” As such the judge decided he should be in custody pending trial. The paper didn’t hit the streets after June 29. The team of promising journalists and seasoned contributors have to bide time to vent their thoughts on the various aspects of life in this country of over 80 million souls.

The saga that began with the impounding of the last edition of Feteh under the pretext of carrying articles that are “ threat to national security,” ended with a different outcome. Though a judge decided to block the distribution and confiscate the 30,000 copies, charges had been dropped on that issue. However, that was not to be the end of the paper’s tribulations. Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has came up with freshly minted charges on previous editions of the weekly, some as far back as a year.

Health of a PM

The disappearance of the country’s leader from the public view since mid June has been the most discussed and dissected issue. Some broke the news of his death as early as July 15. So it is only natural for Feteh or any other media establishment to get to the bottom of the story. The government kept denying it until the newly elected Senegalese President Macky Sall – who happened to be in Addis for African Union summit meeting – told Ethiopians that Meles was sick.

Then the Government Communication Affaires Office (GCAO) and other TPLF bigwigs started to give all kind of conflicting information about the situation. At one point the head of GCAO even promised to bring the PM before the Ethiopian New Year which is September 11. The white lies of the pro government papers of Reporter and Addis Fortune didn’t solve matters either, except revealing their true colors.

As a paper worth its salt, Feteh couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. When they finally carried the story, along with the protest of Ethiopian Muslims, MOJ rushed to stop the distribution of their paper. The paper allegedly didn’t contain anything different from what was being rumored at the time.

When the weekly was impounded the publisher had to loose ETB 83,000 (around $4,500) in printing cost. While the publisher had the opportunity to run the stories online, it seems they didn’t want to complicate the situation. Unfortunately that chance doesn’t exist anymore as their site has since been blocked.

Unleashing the attack dog

Like all other charges preceding the imprisonment of journalists the government has been remarkably predictable in its action. For long time it used the 70 year old attack dog, the sole Amharic daily, Addis Zemen to demonize the preys.

The attack on Feteh was particularly intensified after they published articles about the PM‘s advisors, notably Professor Andreas Eshete, Dr Fasil Nahum and Redwan Hussein. While the officials never contested the truthfulness of the stories, Addis Zemen decided to step up the heat on Feteh. It started a series of articles to last for several months under the title of “A glimpse into Feteh and its columnists.”

The articles attack not only Feteh per se but all who contribute to the paper. The usual suspects like Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, the lone opposition parliamentarian Girma Seifu, ESAT, Eskinder Nega,Finote Netsanet, even Ana Gomez of the European Commission were not spared of the onslaught. “We have to say enough is enough to papers like Feteh who are fulfilling the missions of terrorist organizations under the guise of journalism,” warned Zemen in one of the attacks, a cue that precedes some serious action by the government.

Feteh’s last editorial read: “The public has the right to know” where they argued if the rumor about the deteriorating health condition of the PM is true, the public who picks the bill for his treatment has the right to know. It urged the GCAO to disclose information concerning the issue.  “The staff of Feteh have been exploiting this situation,” decried Addis Zemen. “Most local and international media have reported that the Prime Minister is recovering from his illness but those extremists who have tossed away their professional obligations have reported to the contrary.”

Apparently “the extremists” have been proven right. Ethiopia’s emperor for life Kim-Il Zenawi expired in a Brussels hospital, probably months before the official announcement of August 21,2012.

The face of Feteh

feteh-and-awramba-timesFor all practical purposes Temesgen Desalegn is the face of Feteh. The former external auditor and a graduate of Addis Ababa University Political Science department has been bold in his writings. He already has a book to his name entitled “Yemeles Amleko” (Worshipping Meles), a compilation of articles published in the paper.

His principle of calling a spade a spade is in full display in his articles. That might have cost him a lot though. In a recent interview he told the Amharic weekly Addis Admas that he has 35 charges against him, the status of which he is not sure about. While he has largely avoided prison, he is not new to the courts. Not so long ago he was found guilty of publishing a statement made by a suspect who has since been serving a 25 year term on terrorism charges. Though the suspect, Kinfemichael Debebe (Kesto) took responsibility for the article, the judge fined Temesgen ETB 2,000 ($110) for contempt of court.

Up, up and away?

In the last couple of years, two similar papers have vanished under tremendous pressure from the government. They were edited by younger educated professionals. Their average life span was two years. With the latest action, the regime seems to hit the last nail on the coffin of truly independent papers in the country. Whatever the outcome of the trial, surviving for four years in the most treacherous Ethiopian private media landscape is no mean feat.

Looking for bombs in the email

Originally posted on Jan.5, 2012

Sniffing the emails

Tunisia is among the first country in Africa that started harassing cyber journalists. The country was in the business of blocking websites that were critical of the deposed President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, long before other African countries even started communicating on line. One of the means the Tunisian leaders used to monitor the online communication was by persuading people to use the local internet hosting services – most of which were owned by the President’s own family – instead of the popular webmails of Yahoo and Hotmail.

online-mediaThe online communications of supposed dissidents were wiretapped much easier from the local service providers than the others whose servers are spread across Europe and America. To frustrate Tunisians from using webmail, opening a Yahoo mail in Tunis at the time was said to be taking about 20 minutes.

To put that in an Ethiopian setting, the government would be discouraging people from using somebody@yahoo.com  in favor of somebody@ethionet.et . The information on the latter’s account would be available on the servers of Ethio Telecom found around the La Gare area. That kind of arrangement would make it easier for the government to have access to citizens’ email exchanges; at least it has control over the infrastructure.

The suicide bomber from Arat Kilo

But the powers in Addis had been in total darkness when it comes to handling those kinds of situations. Every website that was perceived to have a different view from that of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was blocked. Human rights groups, journalist rights advocates and media owned by foreign governments – even when they were bankrolling the regime – were not spared of the onslaught.

At times the blocking could become so desperate; it turned out to be suicidal. When Blogger (a free service owned by Google) which was hosting millions of blogs was blocked in Ethiopia some years back, even the blogs of TPLF supporters had to suffer the consequences.  In fact, a top level Ethiopian diplomat was among the bloggers in that platform. As the government couldn’t sift through the subject and the position of the blogs that were popping with each passing day, they decided to go the suicide bomber way by blocking the entire platform. The same thing happened when they thought it was time to block Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). They knocked their own ETV off the air for several days.

Chasing after passwords

Intolerance to dissent coupled with ignorance is at the heart of the latest repression of journalists and activists in the country. People are being arrested without evidences. The courts have no problem granting indefinite amount of time to the security forces to keep the journalists behind bars while the “evidences” are gathered.

In that regard, email account passwords have been the most prized pieces of information that security agents vie for. Almost all the detainees in the past six months have been forced to surrender their email account passwords. Most have been tortured and some have been put in solitary confinement for weeks in an attempt to force them in to revealing that piece of information. Most of them had no choice.

The surrender of that particular information has had a double edged sword effect on the “suspects”. Personal information can be used by the shameless agents to blackmail the detainees unless they confess to the imagined acts of terrorism. But most important, as the journalists are in jail with their passwords surrendered, the security agents can send any information to that account and receive same, all in the name of the suspect. There have been reports that Woubshet Taye, deputy editor- in- chief of the now defunct Awramba Times, was said to have received information from a “terror accomplice” many days after he was imprisoned.

Woubshet was detained on June 19, 2011 and the prosecutor brought to the court an email exchange dated June 30, 2011 as an evidence. Reeyot Alemu, the high school English teacher and a columnist for the Amharic weekly Feteh, had her mail box stuffed with messages that she didn’t know. Her plea to the court about the emails fell on deaf ears.

The prosecutor also produced dubious messages sent to the opposition leader Andualem Aragie that he never opened. Moreover, they were not exchanges between him and other parties. They were rather unsolicited emails, the origins of which are known only to the head of National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) Getachew Assefa.

TPLF investigators also forced three journalists of Yemuslimoch Guday (Islamic Affairs), the Amharic monthly magazine, to surrender both their email and Facebook page passwords.

The security agents are known for planting bombs in public transport systems and blame it on others. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who was Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Addis, is an ardent supporter of TPLF. Even she couldn’t help hiding the facts. “An embassy source, as well as clandestine reporting, suggest that the bombing may have in fact been the work of the GoE (Government of Ethiopia) security forces,” she wrote in a 2006 report dispatched to the State Department.  In light of that heinous crime, what they are doing to the jailed journalists and opposition leaders may look like a favor.


In order to silence the private press, the government can simply stop issuing press licenses and close its Broadcasting Agency which would actually save it some money. It is hard to sell the idea of Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie and others plotting terrorism. If their writing has terrorized Arat Kilo, well that is another issue. That will simply enforce the adage the pen is mightier than the sword. For over six months the government has been looking for incriminating evidences all in the wrong places. As our online activities usually are not much different from what we do off line, it is time to realize for the TPLF henchmen to sober up a bit. It is also better to divert the resources to fix the shabby internet infrastructure of the country than planting fabricated messages on innocent citizens’ mail boxes.

Ethiopia: of terrors and journalists

Originally posted on Nov.14, 2011

The Ethiopian Federal High Court was busy this past week looking into the case of scores of terror suspects that were paraded before them. Unfortunately dozens of them are still at large, but nonetheless tried in absentia.  Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs will be a little busy over the next couple of days writing letters of extradition – if they are serious about it, that is – to several countries across three continents.
Some of the suspects have been sentenced to death many times that they will be forgiven if they lost track of how many death sentences they have on their head.

Charges against journalists.

Eleven journalists have been charged with terrorism, a record high since 2005 when private press journalists were charged en masse of treason and genocide. From the latest suspects six are under custody, two of them being expatriates. Five are living outside of Ethiopia sprawling across the three continents of Africa, Europe and North America. Some of them already citizens of other states and some even living abroad for almost as long as the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power.

Shimeles Kemal who actually writes the charges and doubles as the government spokesperson told TPLF owned Fana Radio Station last Friday that the charges have “nothing to do with freedom of the press. They are terrorists. Terrorists, simply because they work as media practitioners, will not be spared responsibility for their acts.”

Swedish men in Addis

The trial of the two Swedish photographers, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who are accused of supporting terrorist organization, began days earlier than the others. Their trial has attracted a lot of attention and the court was packed with diplomats and several local and international media representatives. The Swedes had the resources to hire top Ethiopian lawyers who have media experience and connections.

But Make no mistake that they will be released. Not to discount from the ability of the lawyers to effectively defend their clients, the fact is their case is hardly about their collaboration with terrorists. The regime in Addis wants to get to Sweden for criticizing human rights violations in Ethiopia over the years. As a result, last year the Prime Minister announced they were closing the embassy in Stockholm because “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden.”

Ethiopia and Sweden had diplomatic relations for over half a century. The same thing happened with Norway earlier when Ethiopia expelled six Norwegian diplomats. After a year the diplomatic relation with Norway was restored. The same will happen with Sweden when the dusts finally settle down. As to the charges, the most important evidence the prosecutor presented to the court was laptop computers, cameras and flash discs and other computer accessories.

The Ethiopian voices

journalists-at-workEight Ethiopian journalists were charged with terrorism. The ninth suspect Sileshi Hagos who has been under custody since early September has not been charged.

A look at the 17 page charges simply reinstates the common held view that the government is out to crush any sign of dissent.  Buried under the clichés of terrorism, wrecking havoc, blowing up infrastructure etc, the actual offence that TPLF was irritated with are the following:
Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been in custody since June, 2011. Reeyot Alemu was a high school teacher and a contributor to the weekly Feteh. Woubshet Taye was deputy editor- in- chief of another weekly Awramba Times.

The two are accused of taking pictures of graffiti that say Enough (Beka) most notably around the regional bus terminal in Merkato. To prove their points the prosecutors brought to the court homeless street kids and tissue vendors from around the terminal popularly known as Atobis Tera.

Eskinder Nega was arrested days after the Ethiopian New Year in September. He is probably the most experienced journalist of all who are charged. He has been in the media business for two decades. As he has been denied of his right to publish, he was contributing articles to online media, most of which are even blocked in the country.

His well articulated weekly articles written in impeccable English and Amharic were well received. One of his most memorable articles entitled Open letter to PM Meles Zenawi he says: “Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want — no, need — you to leave office… The people are closely watching events in North Africa. Listen to them before it’s too late.”  In Mubarak in court: Is Meles next? Eskinder warns: “An African Spring, with Ethiopia, Africa’s largest dictatorship, as its epicenter, is unavoidable.”

Writing about his former prison mate of 17 months, the legendary actor Debebe Eshetu which incidentally was his last article before joining him again in the notorious Maekelawi prison, Eskinder wrote: “How in the world could such a person be involved in terrorism? It simply defies logic.” Eskinder was unabashedly right. Debebe was released over the weekend. In the charge brought against Eskinder it says: “He has called for terror and uprising. Using various means, he disseminated articles with a view to agitate the public.”

Three Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) journalists from Europe and America have also made it the charge list. Some of them are not new to Ethiopian prisons. ESAT is particularly known for the saga with the blockade of its television broadcast to Ethiopia. Their offence according to the charge is “for using the television program to agitate the public.”

Some of ESAT journalists accused of terrorism have a record of writing op-eds in such prestigious dailies as the Wall Street Journal.  One of the accused Abebe Gellaw reacted to the charges by saying: “ I would like to thank you (the PM) profusely for including me in the latest roll call of patriots and freedom fighters…I assure you that the honor will inspire me to do even more to accomplish what is expected of me more effectively and efficiently.” But Abebe Belew who is a radio host in the U.S. told the Voice of America that he is taking the matter seriously. He wants to set up a legal team if other co-accused join him to take the matter all the way to US Congress and State Department.

The fourth category is the two journalists at the Addis Neger Online blog. The latest charges simply justifies the journalists fear when they fled the country two years ago, closing their popular weekly. They are accused of giving platforms for Ginbot 7 political party which has lately become TPLF’s worst nightmare.

Both of them have dropped messages on their Facebook pages. “For spending my waking hours thinking and talking about my country, for dreaming to see my country achieve its promise and potential, I am charged of terrorism by Meles Zenawi,” says Abiye Teklemariam. Mesfin Negash on his part posted: “My official Status according to Meles Zenawi’s book is changed to “a wanted terrorist.” It’ll inspire us all; don’t expect us to give up!!! ”

Waiting for the episode

When two week ago the prime minister was roaring like a lion about the evidences his spies gathered, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The tradition was they would bring out the usual rifles and bombs from the ammunition at Maekelawi prison and parade the prisoners there. Then announce the news that they were caught red handed trying to topple the “constitutional” government. Nothing like that this time! At least they have known by now that didn’t work for two decades. That’s a progress.

But trust me bringing street kids and toilet tissue vendors as witnesses is not a nice alternative either. Of course we can’t wait to see the docudrama that will be produced by ETV in collaboration with Ethiopia’s anti- terror task force .What part is the latest episode again?

ESAT: what is in a name?

Originally posted on July 22, 2010

Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) has been making headlines for the saga related to its interruption. The latest announcement that the station is ready to roll once again is good news for the public as it is a source of alternative news and views. Various TV stations have been launched only to disappear with measured success. The Ethiopian Worldwide Television from London, the Washington D.C. based Ethiopian Television Network are just recent memories.   ESAT is the latest to test the water, albeit in different shape.

As private television broadcasting in Ethiopia is not allowed, all these projects have to be launched from abroad. Taking advantages of the technology and the network of professionals in the Diaspora, they launched the 24 hours TV programming last May.

esatESAT is the latest addition to the more than 300 TV channels that air programs through the Riyadh based Arabsat satellite service provider. The Eritrean government run Eri-TV is arguably the first one to enter the Ethiopian air waves through satellite back in 2004 first in Amharic then in Oromiffa. VOA also – after the jamming of its transmission – recently joined the Arabsat spectrum to broadcast its transmission.  Now it is ESAT’s turn. If they prove successful, expect more stations to follow suit.

The bulk of the journalists serving ESAT are from Europe and with some help from their colleagues residing in the U.S.   Most of the journalists are experienced professionals, some with prison stunts.

Signs of Success?

Since its first broadcast, ESAT proved to be a force to reckon with. It didn’t take long before the Ethiopian audience called them esat (fire). While the role of the media shouldn’t necessarily be grilling the government, the perception somehow indicates they are playing that part.

Three weeks into the launch their transmission was knocked off the air. That happened a couple of times before they were silenced for almost a month. Speculations still going on, the main suspects being the authorities in Addis. Addis Neger Online said that it has obtained information which indicates that “ESAT has successfully been jammed by Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA).”  The source also disclosed Chinese assistance was instrumental in silencing the station with an installation of a 700 MW jammer.

Ethio Media Forum refuted that and quoted a professional:  “The theory that a Chinese gadget from Sar Bet jammed ESAT doesn’t hold water and it is rubbish.”  They also added:  “ESAT was not jammed. It has nevertheless been sporadically interrupted by undetermined electronic interference.”

The service provider has been cautious from putting the blame on anyone for the “undetermined electronic interference”. Nevertheless, ESAT spokesperson Mr Abebe Belew, told  Awramba Times: “We believe we are jammed,” without actually saying who was behind it. In recent interview with the VOA, he again refrained from pointing fingers.  “The service provider is still investigating,” was his response.

Who is watching?

Television is a tricky media for most of the African audience. In Ethiopia, it is even much trickier. With around 30 percent of electric coverage, the other 70 percent is excluded from the benefit of such media by default. Even more, the cost of TV is prohibitively expensive for an overwhelming majority of Ethiopians. At the moment the number of television sets in the country is estimated to be around 400,000. That is a ratio of 1000:5. Most of these owners are concentrated in major towns. What makes matters even more challenging to satellite broadcasters is that all these TV sets cannot receive their signals without additional satellite receivers which normally cost half the price of the TV sets. That shouldn’t be a cause for concern though. Think of the Internet a decade earlier!

The most important advantage of the satellite transmission is that it is not hindered by lack of transmitters. ETV which uses transmitters (and satellite lately) currently covers 43 percent of the country. Fortunately, that is not a problem for satellite broadcasters. That is the advantage of the extra cost of having a satellite dish.

Over the last decade satellite dishes have been sprawling from the roof tops of many Addis Ababa neighborhoods. They are also constantly growing in the regional states. These days the cost of satellite dishes in Ethiopia has shown a drastic increase. In most cases up to 50 percent, hitting the 2000 Birr mark. Many people say ESAT has been one of the “culprits” for the price hike. Others attribute that to the recently concluded World Cup tournaments in South Africa.

As such, ESAT is costly to viewers, which for the foreseeable future makes them the media of the urbanites. Most of the Ethiopian private press have also been targeting this audience. What matters most is the existence of an alternative voice.

Smear Campaign

While it is too early to talk about their success, they seem to have gotten on the nerves of the powers in Addis to be a target of incessant smear campaign.

The TPLF owned Walta Information Center called ESAT “an emerging terrorists’ media.” They also claim “this television is funded by the Eritrean government and international terrorist groups.”  Walta, however, didn’t provide any evidence to sell this claim. When ESAT was knocked off air the first time, the cadres quickly ridiculed them by extending their wish to “Rest In Peace”. Then another one came which said ESAT was actually not fire but a moth (Yesat Rat). Then came: ESAT = Esayas Afeworki TV. The latest one comes with some ethnic flavor added to it, in the classic TPLF style. It reads: “If Amharic is not your language why give your money to ESAT?”  That is a reaction to the various fundraising activities the station is undertaking. The propaganda is not expected to end anytime soon.

To keep up

One of the most important advantage, it is a 24 hours transmission which can be viewed anytime of the day. Sure it is a monumental task to sustain a project like that.

The reporters strive to balance their information by trying to get the other side of the story. They show that they at least tried. That is one big step to create credibility. They are doing their best in hunting down the contact numbers of the news makers. Some of the responses from Ethiopian officials sound dramatic, to say the least.

The availability of their broadcast online through their website. They are also a constant presence in the video sharing websites of YouTube, EthioTube, and DireTube. The Internet presence allows audience to watch the programs in their own terms.

To reconsider

On the downside though, there are a couple of issues ESAT should be addressing:
As a European based media, ESAT could benefit highly from the advances in media in those countries.  Unfortunately, starting from the presentations, the title of their programs, even the attires seem to have been borrowed from ETV.

The need for plan B. ESAT should be ready for any measure from Addis Ababa. Depending on their success, that could range anywhere from tampering with their frequencies to taking legal actions on satellite dish owners in Ethiopia. VOA may have the budget and the diplomatic clout to tackle that but ESAT is vulnerable owing to financial constraints.

Its advisory board composition is also a bone of contention. The regime in Addis is attacking them claiming that since the owners and the advisory board members are known government critics, ESAT cannot be an independent media. The broadcaster insists it is owned by Taskforce for Ethiopian Democracy and Human rights (TEDH), which is a nonprofit organization.

At this juncture, we should also remember that the supposedly public media which is paid for by the Ethiopian tax payer is exclusively controlled by the ruling party cadres. Instances: the board chairman of the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency is none other than Mr Bereket Simon. His deputy Mr Shimeles Kemal sits on the board of the dying Ethiopian Press Enterprise and another top TPLF official Mrs. Netsanet Asfaw chairs the board of Ethiopian News Agency. So much for independence of media preached from Arat Kilo. All said, ESAT should still reconsider the members of its advisory board.

How far ESAT goes depends on a number of variables. Finance being the top most issue. Will they continue to entirely rely on handouts from donors and good Samaritans? Well, that is sure to put the station in a difficult position. They are planning to charge the Internet audience a monthly subscription fee of $ 10, as explained by the spokesperson of the station on VOA. That perfectly makes sense. Major dailies and weeklies like the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Newsweek and others have long begun charging for access to their content at a much higher rate. If we come to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean Newsletter charges an average of $3 per news item for its online content. In that regard, ESAT is just following a trend which befits their services. That is not to forget that they still should seek other sources of finance to sustain this bold project.

Whatever the fate of ESAT, they surely will take credit for showing that it is still possible to penetrate all the blockades and become alternative source of ideas.  All it takes is a bunch of dedicated and resourceful citizens which ESAT’s team has surely been.