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.
It has been a year since long time Ethiopian ruler Meles Zenawi died of unestablished causes in a Belgian hospital somewhere between June and August of 2012. The Government hasn’t come out clearly about the cause of his death.
During the last several weeks the state run media were preoccupied portraying a person akin to a saint. The praises showered upon him were more than needed to canonize him. 21-gun salute was fired; millions of trees planted; fellow leaders of neighbouring countries were at hand to give pomp to the event; scores of parks renamed after him, and the list goes on and on.
University professors, army generals, cabinet members, and party operatives were paraded to give testimony about the deeds of his excellency. They said he was an intellectual, a military strategist, a farmers’s best friend, and man of the people.
ETV even took a page from North Korean manual on cult of personality. They took us to his office showing the working area displaying a document he allegedly was working on; Koreans already did that telling the story of Kim Il-sung (the senior Kim). If that is any indication, everything Meles touched may be preserved as historical relic.
For those whose thirst about Meles’ myth were not quenched, the Sunday shows came up with the selected speeches that tried to make an entertainer out of the chief priest of “revolutionary democracy.”
Meles had all the answers for every question under the sun; he was talking to the rubber stamp parliament ready to giggle at every phrase uttered; he was addressing the youth, the business men, the revelers at a millennium party, you name it.
While the nation propaganda machine wants to paint a demigod, it is only fair to complete the story. As they say, journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” Here are some of his pronouncements that were willingly left out:
• In April 1990 a year before Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) controlled Addis Ababa, Meles had an interview with the late CIA and National Security specialist Paul B. Henze in the TPLF’s Washington office. “We can no longer have Amhara domination,” Meles told him. While it was no secret that Henze sympathized with TPLF, he still confronted the rebel leader to which Meles tried to soften a bit: “ When we talk about Amhara domination, we mean the Amhara of Shoa, and the habit of Shoan supremacy that became established in Addis Abeba during the last hundred years.”
• In a visit to the Tigray region shorty after his ascendance to power the then Ethiopian President played to the emotions of the public somewhat in the line of Hitler’s rhetoric about the Aryan race: “We are proud to be born out of you…we are proud to be gotten out of you.” ( Enkwae abhatkum tefetirna…enkwae abhatkum terehibna ) That part of the speech is always left out when ETV takes sound bytes from that “historical” speech, not to offend the “nations and nationalities.”
• In August 1994 (some say it was October 1995), Meles Zenawi visits the U.S. and confers with members of Ethiopian community in Washington D.C. Flanked by his yes-men like Seyoum Mesfin, Berhane G.Kristos, Dr Tekeda Alemu and other TPLF top brass, Meles was entertaining questions from the audience. A lady asks him what his vision was for Ethiopia ten years from then. Meles responded his vision was to make sure the people eat three times a day. Decade after the promised era, Ethiopians scavenge for left overs at restaurants or in city waste disposal sites.
• In an interview with Professor Donald Levine – a renowned U.S. sociologist and professor of Ethiopian studies – the late premier retorted: “The Tigreans had Axum, but what could that mean to the Gurague! The Agew had Lalibela, but what could that mean to the Oromo! The Gonderes had castles, but what could that mean to the Wolaita?”
That comment was to haunt him on the eve of the 2005 general elections where he was afraid to face any opposition politician for debate. In his last appearance prior to the vote, Meles explained that gaffe saying it was taken out of context. But he implied that the Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture (then Ambassador to France) Teshome Toga who hails from Wolaita Zone was put in charge to counter the perception his words created. Teshome eventually oversaw the return of the Axum Obelisk in April 2005.
When history is written by historians rather than victors, those speeches and comments hopefully will get their rightful place in the interest of posterity.
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.
Originally posted on Jan.6, 2010
The Ethiopian private press is in the limelight again. As part of the Prime Minister’s threat not to repeat what happened in 2005, a huge anti press campaign is well underway, resulting in countless interviews. The government is set to hit hard at any opposition in its way before the inconsequential elections slated for May of this year. The current campaign is a prelude to the subsequent measures to be taken if anyone wants to challenge the status quo.
While there is almost no private press in the country that could in any way challenge the authorities at Menelik Palace, the Government seems to be haunted by some ghosts. Otherwise the onslaught shouldn’t have been necessary at all.
Tell me lies…
The “documentary”, as ETV likes to call it, is full of fabrications and lies in the best tradition of revolutionary democrats. Some of the lies are supported by real footage with a distorted narration of the fact, one of them being a public protest that took place in 1994. The producers of the program unashamedly tell us it was a protest against the private press in general. Well, in comparison to the day-to-day lies the station fabricate, it may sound not a big deal.
However, the record should be set straight. That was a demonstration against a couple of magazines who had pornographic content, the most important of them being Enkoy. That’s all about it! It was never against the private press. That was the reason why the protest was attended exclusively by women. And it has to be added that the demonstration was actually organized by the new kids in the palace as they thought it would help boost their moral stature by the general public. Alas, it was so amateurish that some of the pregnant women who took part in the protest carried slogans that say “We don’t want sex” (wesib anfelgim). That slogan served a raw material for many a cartoon by the private newspapers at the time.
Another repeated lie in the campaign was the narrators’ quotation of headlines after headlines from the private press. In almost all those cases the headlines are quotes of individuals than the words of the publishers. The quotes are clear for everyone to see.
To lend credibility to the propaganda, ETV persists on sound bites of two academicians from school of journalism at Addis Ababa University. One of them later on complained on the weekly Addis Admass saying his views had been distorted and doctored to fit the mold.
The other one was rather vigorous in attacking the media practitioners of the private press. He said most wrote their stories smoking Shisha. He labels them “extremists”. As if that was not enough, the assistant professor of journalism makes a sweeping statement saying the private press in Ethiopia is on a “destructive course”.
The president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association was out to condemn everything that has the word private. He had no kind words to the journalists he was supposed to defend. He was so angry by the private press that he had to cross the border to Kenya to make his point. He accuses the Kenyan media of fomenting violence during that country’s 2007 elections. He doesn’t cite any study or publication to substantiate his hearsay. For the record, the Kenyan media is the most vibrant press in the African continent. It is the real fourth branch of the Kenyan government. The Daily Nation and The Standard are the engines on which the politics of the east African country thrive. It will take ages to come anywhere close to that country’s media.
Of soldiers and captives
ETV accuses some of the private press publishers as being former soldiers. What they forgot was two of the people who were interviewed to justify the government’s assumptions were also soldiers during that same Dergue regime: one was an airborne the other one being a captain. Weren’t they hurting the feelings of their own collaborators? Don’t they know the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization leaders beginning from the current mayor of Addis Ababa, Mr Kuma Demeksa were all soldiers who were captured by Eritrean People Liberation Front and Tigrean People Liberation Front.
From Eritrea with love
In its desperate attempt to discredit the private press, the program touches upon the Eritrean TV. Was that supposed to compare the Ethiopian private press to the Eritrean government media? In that case it is lame. Because TPLF was a creation of EPLF. And the later took it upon themselves to train their gullible disciples everything they know. Should we continue talking about similarities?
The beef with VOA
Then the producers turn to the Voice of America. They use post 2005 footage to show us how the public was angry at the Washington D.C. based media. The journalists at VOA are accused of working for Sertoader which was the organ of the Workers Party of Ethiopia during the Dergue regime. It is difficult to say which VOA journalist was the target of the attack. Certainly, VOA has a shiny history when it comes to fighting totalitarianism. During the 70s and 80s, it, along with Radio Free Europe, was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain. They played a significant role in liberating Eastern Europe from the shackles of Marxism.
VOA and Deutsche Welle have been the most trusted sources of information in Ethiopia. As most of us recall, having locked up the private media journalists and closing the publications, the government tried to jam those broadcasters in vain. Then one of the reporters of VOA, Mr Meleskachew Amha, was beaten up. That didn’t change anything. Then the authorities started to force the public to sign a petition which was supposed to be delivered to the respective embassies. When all that proved to be an exercise in futility, five journalists of the VOA were charged with genocide. Funny enough, some of those haven’t been to Ethiopia in two decades. The guys at Arat Kilo had no choice but to drop the charges.
Fairy tales of the Economy
Then comes ETV’s favorite article from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which predicts Ethiopia’s will be the fifth fastest growing economy in the world. If that is the case, we will all be happy even knowing whose pocket will grow fat with that figure. Fortunately most of us are under no illusion how figures translate into the actual injera on the table. Aren’t we growing 10 to 12% every year! That mere PREDICTION was passed to all Ethiopian embassies worldwide by the ministry of foreign affairs. The diplomatic missions were ordered to discuss the issue in all available media. ETV repeatedly uses this information to brag about the economic performance of the government. By the way, four months earlier that same magazine said:”Mr Meles…with a dismal human rights record who is intolerant of dissent,” it went on to say “… sprinkles spies through the university to intimidate and control the students”, the Economist August 13, 2009. Ethiopian embassies were not ordered to discuss that.
The “gutter press”
What is surprising is the private press with all its shortcomings had a tremendous impact in shaping up public opinion in the country. Some private newspapers in their two years existence have done more than what government papers failed to do in seven decades. The government was decidedly against the private press from the outset. The Prime Minister called it “gutter press”, and did all in his power to suppress it. The country was always listed as the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism. Even after closing all the private press, Ethiopia recently was listed by Committee to Protect Journalists as the second most dangerous country in Africa to be a journalist. The suppression doesn’t end there. Ethiopia is also famous for blocking websites. All major news websites are not accessible. The ruling party didn’t care to improve the abysmal 0.2% internet penetration rate which is the lowest on planet earth. But with a little help from China, they managed to restrict access to the Internet.
All the news that’s fit to print
Before concluding this write-up, it is important to mention samples of the news that ETV fabricate.
Prime Minister Meles had a two-hour discussion with President Bill Clinton at the White House when the truth was revealed to be a 20 minutes affaire.
In 2002 the longest-serving foreign minister in the history of the country used ETV to tell the public that Badme has been awarded to Ethiopia by the International Boundary Commission.
General Hayelom was martyred (tesewa). Everybody knows martyrdom is for those who give their lives for altruistic causes. Do we need to mention how he died? God rest his soul in peace!
Mothers expressed joy over the detention conditions of their children in the Ziway prison following election related protests in 2005.
Technical glitches at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation caused the interruption of text messaging by phone. It forgot to tell us how it had happened days after the elections and why it took the engineers at ETC three years to fix it. That “glitch” is so nasty that it is still preventing us from accessing Ethiopian news websites from Internet cafés in Addis.
That is a TV used for displaying weapons from the government armory when they want to lockup opposition politicians accusing them of coup d’état. But that list makes for several books.
He who lives in a glass house…
Those who live in a glass house should know better than not to throw stones. When the ruling clique accuse others of telling lies that is travesty at its peak. This article is not a call for the revolutionary democrats to stop lying. They cannot do that. Lie is the foundation of the system. Without it the system will fall apart. But when they go out of their way to preach about truth and ethics, they pass what the ‘dear leader’ calls the “red line”. That is where it hurts.
In a recently held press conference the Prime Minister was asked about his views on the program. He said while he didn’t watch the “documentary”, people told him that it was a very good one. Remember Sebhat Nega’s interview to the VOA about anti terrorism law in Ethiopia. The Member of Parliament said he didn’t read the draft but people told him it was a good one. It makes sense. Who in their right mind waste their time watching or reading trashes, when it can better be spent enjoying the booty.
Originally posted on July 1, 2009
The first number we ever heard of Michael Jackson was not Thriller, it was Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Incidentally that was the first track from the fateful Thriller album. It took me a decade or so to realize Jacko was actually saying Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. What we used to say was Comme se Kum sa Kuma. We also know now that that line was borrowed from the Cameroonian Saxophonist Manu Dibango’s signature tune Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-koo-sa. Back then, we used to sing along not what the artist was actually saying , but according to what we generally thought as he said, not forgetting our rudimentary command of the language.
Then comes Thriller, with Jacko’s famous red jacket. As colour TVs and Video Cassette Recorders (VCR) were just introduced to the country, we had to go places just to have a glimpse of that horror video clip. Video home owners also seized the opportunity to make more money. I remember a day when we paid a Birr just for the Thriller video clip, in a time when two movies and a selection of music videos were generally screened around town just for 50 cents.
But before we even heard Jackson’s songs or watched the video, huge posters of the King of Pop with Brooke Shields were adoring many an electronics store in the Mercato vicinity. We hardly knew the young attractive lady. But the assumption was she could be the girlfriend. Years later we realized Brook Shields was a model and an actress. Some of her shows were to be made part of the staples of ETV’s series of early nineties.
Then Billie Jean with the legendary moon walk move and Beat It! were to eclipse Thriller. FM radios were none existent then. The national radio could hardly play unpatriotic songs. The same was true with the only TV station in the country. Then again we could see Billie Jean on the TV once in a blue moon. Otherwise, it was the all pervasive video parlors who actually made a huge impact on spreading the word. None less important were the newspaper and magazine vendors in Mercato specifically the Mirab Hotel area who were selling posters and all kind of images of the King of Pop.
With that, of course, the style comes to the scene. Michael’s outfits and hair styles were to be followed by the youth. Though the trademark jacket was hard to come by, there were guys who did what it takes to get one. And guess what! One such guy- who at least in the Mercato area – was none other than Tadelle Roba of the Lafontaine fame. Tadelle and co. were trend setters. Most of all, they actually had that famous outfit with God knows how many zippers and a small motor bike. Boy, did they roam the Sebategna Mercato area with that loud noise! It was difficult not to notice those fellas. Tadelle never looked back.
With Lionel Richie, country stars Kenny Rogers and Don Williams also making their mark in the Addis (Western) music scene, Michael had to share some of that space but still remaining dominant. Then comes We Are The World. That was also a chance to see all the big stars of the time in one stage, of course Michael being at the center of it all. Just around that time, his brother Marlon Jackson actually paid a visit to Addis. Sure not to entertain the public. But with the rather infamous drought related activities.
Then, the rest – as they say – is history.
May the King rest in peace.