These days Dr Negeri Lencho, Minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office is making the rounds at various media houses: BBC, Deutsche Welle, VOA, foreign based ruling party friendly media, EBC are just to mention but a few.
As the new kid on the block in the cabinet of PM Hailemariam Desalegn, Dr Negeri is creating an impression that he is open to all who seek his attention. In comparison to his combatant predecessor, Negeri is plain and soft spoken, devoid of party lingo, and above all professor of journalism at Addis Ababa University. What better preparation for the post!
However the one thing he lacks most is the information itself. He could barely come up with conclusive answer about his former colleague at the AAU when he was arrested shortly after a trip to Brussels. Lawyers and activists fared far better, concerning Dr Merera Gudina’s arrest, than the central figure entrusted with communicating state information. At the VOA interview he even dared to say the “government was protecting Dr Merera.” It’s anybody’s knowledge who sought protection from whom.
After hours of interviews given to the aforementioned media, there is hardly a revelation or some kind of breakthrough that is worth mentioning. Instead his understanding of the incarceration of journalists is clearly a cause for concern, if not outrage.
Take no prisoners
It is obvious that Dr Negeri is departing from the tried and tested responses about imprisonment of journalists. Negeri either doesn’t care or know about the narratives.While his predecessors never denied the imprisonment of journalists, their scripted response was no journalist is jailed for their reporting or writings. But the other day in his Meet EBC interview Dr Negeri broke with tradition by making a sweeping statement: “Ethiopia doesn’t detain journalists.”
Unless journalists are of a different stock to the academician, at any given time Ethiopian prisons host journalists as their favorite patrons. Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and Temesgen Desalegn are not off-the-cuff bloggers but seasoned journalists and publishers who are serving anywhere between 18 to three years sentences, on charges stemming from the clichéd terrorism to the more outlandish attempt “to change the mindset of the youth.” Yonatan Tesfaye, Ananya Sori and Befekadu Hailu are another young batch of journalists and bloggers who are detained; matter of fact some have been arrested shortly after Dr Negeri took office. Their charges is probably in the making, needless to say terrorism is the favorite card to be picked any time.
Sources, sources, sources…
Much to the chagrin of the spokesperson, the Committee to Protect Journalists came up this week with a report accusing the government of putting 16 journalists behind bars, that made the country the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, just after Egypt and Eritrea.
Dr Negeri’s issues with rights campaigners is that they don’t disclose sources of information when they gather the data. He insisted on Meet EBC that the sources should be disclosed. Well, everybody wishes that would be the case ideally. But we don’t need to dig deep to understand the consequences of contacting rights groups or media houses.
• Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress was slapped with four-year prison term days after he met representatives of Amnesty International. Now he is in another round of terrorism charade.
• Last year a woman, in the drought stricken corner of northern Ethiopia, gave interview to a BBC TV journalist Clive Myrie saying people were dying of hunger.Then hell broke loose!Ethiopian Ambassador to UK, the government spokesman Getachew Reda, the Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom took turns lashing out at the British journalist for his intention to “tarnish the image of the country.” And district party operatives tracked down the poor peasant to force her recant the testament on Amhara TV.
• Days after the declaration of state of emergency words were that Zone 9 blogger Befekadu Hailu was arrested allegedly for talking to VOA, the same broadcaster Dr Negeri had a marathon interview with just the other week; add to that the voices of many individuals on VOA Amharic and Afaan Oromo are changed to conceal their identity.
Then, why should it be difficult to understand the concerns of citizens who want to remain anonymous when tipping off rights violations. If Dr Negeri wants to get to the bottom of the issue, he should look at the allegations not the sources; analyze court records about the charges; can even go bolder by taking steps talking to jailed journalists and bloggers. That will make him a genuine change agent!
As things stand now the one thing Dr Negeri may have an impact is in the chairmanship of the board of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, which by default comes with the new post. There is no more opportune moment than this for him to put his mark on the national broadcaster by giving it a semblance of a news media rather than condemning it to a mere ruling party propaganda outfit.
May theory and practice come in close harmony. Amen!
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.