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!
The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?
But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.
When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.
To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.
For a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.
It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.
GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.
The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.
Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.
All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.
While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.
Secretary general of the outlawed Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, Andargachew Tsige, was detained in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on June 24; and if we have to believe the official version, he was extradited to the security officials in Addis the same day.
Yemen, which never misses the top ten spot on the annual failed states index, seemed unable to contain the pressure of holding an opposition leader of a foreign country. They quickly dumped him over to his nemesis who already handed him a couple of death sentences. Worrying about international conventions and treaties is a luxury the Arabian Peninsula nation can hardly afford.
Two weeks after the arrest, Ethiopian officials were confident enough to put Andargachew on national television to prove they got their sworn enemy. One that triggered the government’s disclosure is probably to preempt whatever may come from London, a day earlier British official met the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. While the topic of the discussion was not mentioned, it is clear that Ms Lynne Featherstone didn’t travel 5,000 km to tell Hailemariam “the support of her government would further be consolidated in the future.” Andargachew, who is a naturalized British citizen, might as well be high on the agenda.
ETV showed some images of Andargachew in military fatigue and in villages, the location of which is yet to be disclosed. But a carefully edited grainy video which is more likely taped by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) shows him saying:
“I am at ease with myself. For me It is a blessing in disguise. I am in no rush. I just want to rest.I am really exhausted. I have no resentment, no anger and no despair.I am totally in control and stable.”
Those words barely convey any messages. We don’t know if they are given under duress. Or if the investigators want to cajole the opposition figure into getting him to give more information, if there is anything left by now. We see him shaking hands with his interviewer whose face is unseen, may be an attempt to show he is in good hands.
That puts to rest the weeklong speculation of the media and in some cases top ranking government officials. “I have no idea,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse. The government spokesperson Getachew Reda, who is closer to the inner circle of the leadership, was generally dodging the question by retorting to rhetorics.
So last night’s statement sets the government information officials free, at least not to deny what is the obvious. Your move Shimeles Kemal!