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 May 10, 2012
Awramba Times (AT) is back! This time it is not the 24 pages tabloid, but an online journal that is just joining the ever growing Ethiopian blogosphere. Awramba is not completely new to the online world though. Its print edition used to be available on some other sites in what is known as PDF format. They were even contemplating the sell of electronics copy of the paper through email subscription. Unfortunately that idea never took off.
AT was established in March 2008 after the release of its editor-in-chief Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison where he spent 21 months. His crime was to be a publisher of another defunct tabloid called Hadar. The charges were the all too well known clichés of genocide and outrage against the constitution.
Awramba was becoming popular and the circulation grew quickly averaging 7,000 copies which is a big deal for an Ethiopian private press. However, the issues entertained in the paper were unsettling for the revolutionary democrats at the Menelik Palace. As a result, the Amharic weekly became a regular subject of smear campaign by government and other ruling party affiliated media. The paper’s deputy editor-in-chief Woubshet Taye was arrested on terrorism charges in June 2011 and sentenced to 14 years in prison and ETB 33,000 fine. In November 2011, Dawit Kebede had to flee the country, effectively shutting down the paper.
Awramba’s and Dawit’s fate has a striking similarity to the other once popular Amharic weekly Addis Neger and its editors who had to flee en masse in December 2009 after a repeated threat of persecution from ruling party henchmen. Bizarre as it may sound, two years after they had fled the country some of them were charged with terrorism.
Hitting it online…
Awrambatimes.com was officially launched over the weekend. The bilingual page has all the features a modern day website can boast of; text, pictures, video and the likes. The page shows how the editors put an enormous amount of effort to bring that to fruition.
True to their newspaper background, the website looks more of an online magazine with news, politics, business, sports, entertainment and other columns.
With already established Ethiopian news websites on both ends of the political spectrum, AT has a lot to do to convince readers why they should visit their site. They already have a name recognition on their side which gives them a head start in comparison to dozens of obscure websites whose URL (the www address) can easily be misspelled and lost in the process. Nevertheless, the name recognition can also have unintended consequences. With the success of their print edition back in the days, the audience have built certain expectations of Awramba and meeting them is an ardent task.
Probably the key to that is the originality of their stories. Because the site is based in Washington, DC, it will have to rely on correspondents from Ethiopia.
As the government censors have intensified their web filtering this past couple of weeks, AT will be lucky to escape the prying eyes of the Big Brother at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) whose sole visible activity is censoring websites of those who beg to differ from the ideology of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).
While there are a number of websites that have been launched over the last couple of years, consistency and perseverance have not always been the hallmark of them. Without sounding cynic, the case of Addis Neger can be a vivid example. Addis Neger with its bloggers both at home and abroad had a very promising start. However, two years after its remarkable launch the story is completely different.
So Awramba will have to sift its way through these hurdles. Nevertheless, the sheer challenges should not discourage them from attaining what they set for themselves.
At last, the launch of Awramba on line should be welcomed in that it adds to the platforms where news and views are shared. It is also a symbol of defiance that the recipient of the 2010 CPJ International Press Freedom Award is throwing into the table. He is refusing to be silenced.
Wish them luck!
Originally posted on Jan.12, 2012
On July 1, 2011 freelance journalist Johan Persson and photo journalist Martin Schibbye were detained in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. There are two versions as to why the Swedes were in the area. The first one, according to The Local, a Swedish online news journal, was to “report on the conflict between the Somali guerrillas and the Ethiopian state.” Then another version popped up in the court hearing which asserts that the journalists were in the area to investigate the Lundin Petroleum that was given licenses to explore oil in the East African Nation. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was under tremendous pressure over the handling of the case, was a member of the board of the company.
But the government in Addis thinks otherwise. The two journalists have been supporting the rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) that has been designated a terrorist organization by Ethiopian parliament in June 2011.
The trial of the Swedes had attracted huge international media attention. Scores of Swedish journalists flew from Stockholm to express solidarity; international media representatives, diplomats, even the American ambassador in Addis, Donald Booth were among the attendees. Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were represented by top lawyers from both countries. The trial took a little more than two months. On December 27, 2011 a judge sentenced them to 11 years imprisonment for “supporting terrorism.”
The “high-level contact” between the two countries officials to secure the release of the detainees didn’t bear any fruit. But the relations between the two countries were tense for the past couple of years now. As a result, Addis Ababa decided to close its Embassy in Stockholm. “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden,” the Ethiopian PM told reporters in 2010. The two countries relation dates back to the middle of the 19th century. However, the Scandinavian nation of nine million didn’t reciprocate with the same. It kept its Embassy in Addis open for business.
So the Swedes had until January 10, 2012 to appeal. But heeding to “the best possible advice”, they decided – probably wisely – not to appeal. By now they should have a clear understanding of the justice system of the country. Their guilty verdict was pronounced long before the trial had begun. The PM famously told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten that they were “messenger boys of a terrorist organization.” Don’t blame Judge Shemsu Sirgaga. He was just executing an order from the “dear leader”.
Now there are already talks of the “a tradition of mercy”, Board of Pardon, Presidential Amnesty and so on. Truth be told, how long the Swedes will stay in Kaliti before they go home will squarely depend on the PM who happens to be the darling of the West.
The Kaliti prison which is found in the outskirts of Addis has become a pilgrimage to Ethiopian political dissidents and journalists. Hopefully the Swedes will have a firsthand experience of that grim environment should they want to write about it when they finally go home.
The justice system in Ethiopia is in shambles. The courts have long become instruments of repression. Judges routinely hand down death sentences and life imprisonment for political dissidents that nobody takes them seriously any more. See why the journalists are not appealing. Because “they felt that it was very unlikely that another judge would see it any different.” Isn’t the whole point of appeal the overturning of a decision by a lower court? What will a man loose by appealing an 11 year prison sentence? The answer is simple. Johan’s and Martin’s six month sojourn in custody gave them a clear picture of the Ethiopian justice system. So appealing is an exercise in futility.
Sadly, the injustice system that has prevailed in the country is primarily paid for by major European democracies who allowed an autocratic leader stay in power for 20-odd years. As usual the lip service has been duly rendered. “The sentencing on terrorism-related charges raises concerns about the freedom of media and expression in Ethiopia,” says a statement released by the EU representative.
How long will the process of pardon takes place will also depend on the regime’s intentions rather than rules and procedures. We all hope the two will be released as soon as possible and join their loved ones.
For the record, there are three local and two Eritrean journalists in Ethiopian prisons. And let’s not forget Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, just to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr.
Originally posted on June 27, 2011
At any given time there is an Ethiopian journalist in detention either in the notorious Maekelawi, Kerchele, and Kaliti or at times as far in a place as Assosa or even Gondar. Since the mid 1990s, scores of Ethiopian media professionals were put behind bars. The first victims of the government’s harsh response were the late Tefera Asmare of Ethiopis newspaper and its publisher Eskinder Nega. Tefera was forced to flee his country and died in exile in the Netherlands in 2003.
In its latest report, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Ethiopia as one of the top most jailers of media practitioners in the world. CPJ says there are six journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia. According to a data compiled by the media rights group, since 2001 about 79 journalists fled the country. With that number, Ethiopia leads the pack of the top 12 countries that are hostile to the independent press.
Ethiopian journalists are paying prices for doing what every journalist is supposed to do, write news or express views. The other week was particularly difficult. In less than a week, two journalists were put behind bars. No official reason has been given.
Pieces of information gathered from different corners lead to terrorism charges. How did an English language teacher and part time columnist find herself to be a terrorist? How was a family man, who does his job in full public sight as deputy editor-in-chief of a weekly, preparing to create havoc? At the moment only the guys from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have a clue.
As always the government spokesperson doesn’t know about the arrest. “There are no journalist arrests, incarcerated in Ethiopia,” Shimeles Kemal told CPJ shortly after the detention of Woubshet.
The legal excuse
In August 2009 the Ethiopian rubber stamp Parliament passed an Anti-Terror Proclamation. In short, this law is intended to give blanket authority to NISS to lock any journalist under the pretext of terrorism. Most of the articles in that legislation are deliberately vague that the government can take anything as an act of terrorism. Article 6 of the legislation says: “Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment… ” Of course, the underlined phrases can be interpreted in bazillion ways. The legislation is full of such articles and phrases.
Two years after that legislation, the 99.6 Parliament labeled Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, al-Qaeda and al- Shabaab terrorists. That was followed by the detention of Woubshet Taye of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, the columnist for another weekly Feteh.
Nobody can tell how long the journalists will stay in detention. The vague law gives security forces from 28 days up to four months to put them in prison without charges.
Woubshet Taye has been editor-in- chief of Awramba Times, the paper established in 2008 shortly after the release of its publisher Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison. The last feature Woubshet penned under his name was that of the June 18, 2011 feature entitled “Shimiyaw Yet Yadersenal,” an article about the rampant corruption taking place in the country. Though the article is critical of the government’s lack of commitment to tackle the problem, it is unlikely to touch the nerves of the occupants of the Arat Kilo Palace to overreact in such manner.
Woubshet has been in the radar of the authorities for a while though. In May 2010 he wrote a feature article entitled “Where did these people go?” The paper put that bold title against the backdrop of a huge public demonstration that took place five years earlier at Meskel Square.
Following the publication of that article, Woubshet was given a warning by the head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Desta Tesfaw, that he would be responsible for any riot in the aftermath of the elections. Woubshet immediately resigned his job. However, he came back to the paper three months later as co-deputy editor- in- chief. (That position has been a safe bet for Ethiopian private press journalists for legal reasons). In that capacity he wrote commentaries on topical issues. As Ethiopian authorities are famous for retroactive criminal charges, before he knew it Woubshet may find himself charged for an obscure article he may not even remember when it was published.
The weekly Feteh is one of the most critical of the government. The paper has already been charged with dozens of offences. Some even predicted the paper would fold. But the story of their death seems to be greatly exaggerated. The paper’s columnist Reeyot has been picked by security forces from the school where she teaches English. Her house searched and she was reported to have appeared before a judge in a closed court. But as a member of the faction of Unity for Democracy and Justice (Andinet Party), she is a natural target of government repression.
The way out…
Imprisoning journalists on all kinds of trumped up charges has been a tradition for the regime in Addis. The only thing that keeps changing is the pretext. In the initial years it used to be defamation, incitement followed soon, and then treason and genocide became the plat du jour. Now the new song in town is terrorism. The charges are intended to scare sympathizers of the outlawed opposition parties. But locking journalists or forcing them to flee will hardly be a solution to the regime’s perennial fears. The unconditional release of the media practitioners is the only way out.