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.
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.
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 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.