Tag Archives: walta

Bracing for Fana TV knowing what’s in store

License to thrill

Amid the declaration of state of emergency and the subsequent cabinet reshuffle a TV broadcasting license has quietly been issued to three broadcasters. Same number of permits have also been doled out to FM stations, some with deep pocket connections. The licensing of TV would have been a landmark event had it not come too late and too little. The satellite broadcasting licenses were issued to the usual suspects though: Fana Broadcasting Corporate and Walta Information Center among them.

With the increasingly blurred lines between the party and government media, one wonders what will they do differently that’s not been tried by the fifty year old national broadcaster in the country. However, apart from keeping company to that station, one thing they will make with the utmost certainty is money.

A couple of months ago Woldu Yimesel, the general manager of FBC stated they will be on air as early as January of next year after a trial to be launched in the months ahead. Fana has been testing the water for quite sometime now. It was working with Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation and lately it is even producing radio programs with a view to airing them on TV. Plenty of backlogs to start with!

fana-logo2At the face of it, it looks as if the government felt well rooted —despite the civil unrests in many parts of the country which prompted the declaration of state of emergency—to let the electronics media have a field day. Unfortunately that is far from the truth. For starters, FBC and Walta are owned by Tigray People Liberation Front which currently runs the country in a different name. As such the move contravenes article 23 of the Broadcasting Service Proclamation that bar political parties from running stations. However, the contradictions do not end there. Incessant rhetoric against Egypt notwithstanding, the stations will be using the service of Nilesat, which is partially owned by that government.

Talking digital

While some got license, others got contracts worth millions. A party and a quasi publicly owned companies have been selected as exclusive manufacturers of digital to analog converter boxes locally known as Set Top Box. That is to help the digitization of television broadcasting. The digital to analogue converter box is used to help TV owners receive digital broadcasting signals from their older analogue sets.

Not long ago EBA claimed the transition would be over by 2016. Not that the switch is not over as we tiptoe to 2017, but even the production of the converters has not begun. To make matters worse, the main contractor is none other than the Metals and Engineering Corporation, the notoriously inefficient army industrial complex. When will the transition be over? Do the math.

But the silver lining here is the number of TV sets in the country that actually need the device will be far less than five million as EBA claims it to be. For one, most sets bought in the last couple of years may already be digital. Secondly, electronics manufacturers will not be making the obsolete receivers, if they haven’t done so by now. And add to that, people with satellite receivers can dodge that step altogether as the boxes are part of the package. If the dishes sprawling on top of the roofs around town is any indication, we are probably talking millions.

Be that as it may, for all the chatter about this transformation, it has nothing to do with the content of the  broadcast. The whole idea of digitization, at its very basic, is about picking better video and audio signals rather than experiencing flickery screens. It is either crispy clear pictures or a black screen. As all things digital, it is binary — the best or nothing.

Going Private

Ever since the regime change and the subsequent declaration of freedom of the press that went as far as copy-pasting article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the country’s private media have been confined to the print sector. Electronics was the preserve of the government or at best a privilege of its offshoots. Myriad excuses were given to shun the private sector out of that medium.The call by the public and the stakeholders for the liberalization of the sector was not heeded until 2007, when licenses were issued to two FM broadcasters. It had to take a decade for the government to let loose. However the reality is nobody actually needed a satellite broadcasting license. Almost half a dozen of them existed before the latest formality.

The problem actually was the liberalization of conventional terrestrial TV which, with each passing year, is heading to its extinction. Even after the digitization, which lately popped up as an excuse for delaying the process, the government still mandates broadcasters to use EBC’s infrastructure for transmission. Those hurdles would make acquiring that license utterly difficult. And when and where it will be allowed, terrestrial TV may be phasing out, if it is not on its last legs already.

On with satellite

The government’s tight grip on TV was broken by satellite broadcasting from overseas. The U.S based Ethiopian Satellite Television was the pioneer in that regard back in 2010. Then others like EBS, JTV, Kana, Nahoo followed suit, arguably with a tacit support of the government. They mainly focus on entertainment and interviews that come in different shapes and forms. Some are already leaving their footprints on popular culture. However the likes of ESAT and Oromia Media Network were on a tug-of-war with a state bent on burning up all its resources to knock them off of the spectrum. Now it is official! The state of emergency declared last month specifically mentions the two stations as harbingers of terrorism and tuning in comes with serious consequences. On the flip side though, it is a recognition of their influence that cannot be said of the government’s own stations that gobble up millions and got nothing to show for it.

Blurred lines

As it stands now satellite broadcasting seems to be an open season for all who have the resources. The two broadcasters EBA issued licensing are shielded from the Authority’s scrutiny by virtue of their ownership. Instances abound: FBC never applied for radio license when it went on air one 1995 morning; Walta also precedes all the regulators. While it pretends to be a news agency focusing on gathering and disseminating information, for all intents and purposes, there is no difference between it and Fana. Simply put, just another money minting machine!

Going by their radio station, Fana TV can be predictable. But what will distinguish them from the other satellite crowd is current affairs. Politics will be abundant in their lineup. Ever heard the quote: “freedom of the press is guaranteed…to those who own one”? Well, Fana owns both the media and the government. Now you know the drill.

Whatever happened to private TV in Ethiopia

Last week, the South­ern Regional State launched their own TV sta­tion. Debub TV is expected to air a ten-hour pro­gram­ming from its sta­tion in Hawassa to the region’s esti­mated 16 mil­lion peo­ple. So far they were air­ing a one hour broad­cast through Ethiopian Radio Tele­vi­sion Agency (ERTA). Typ­i­cally, they would pro­duce their pro­gram from the regional mass media agency then send the one hour tape to Addis Ababa to be broad­cast on the national TV. From now on, the Region wouldn’t use the help of oth­ers to get on air. The sta­tion is a ben­e­fi­ciary of a late-comer advan­tage, as such they are said to have acquired state of the art pro­duc­tion equip­ment installed by MJO Broad­cast at a cost of ETB 180 mil­lion (close to $10 mil).

All said and done, con­tent wise, there will hardly be much of a dif­fer­ence from what the national TV is offer­ing. It may as well be the same old chan­nel prob­a­bly with a dif­fer­ent intro to it.
Almost all the regional sta­tions are repli­cat­ing what the national TV is broad­cast­ing. The TV spec­trum is doomed to the exclu­sive monop­oly of the rul­ing party ideology.

A few weeks back word came from the most unlike­li­est of offi­cials. Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda was quoted as say­ing: “Issu­ing license for TV broad­cast­ing needs extreme cau­tion.” As the media can be used in nation build­ing, Abadula argued, words can have the power to break soci­ety apart.

If one already allows radio — albeit FM only — the poten­tial dam­age the “words” could bring on the screen, if at all, is quite min­i­mal. If you allow radio, which can be heard any­where and every­where, why not TV which is less ubiquitous.

A decade after the estab­lish­ment of Ethiopian Broad­cast­ing Author­ity (EBA), which is respon­si­ble for issu­ing licenses, the coun­try hasn’t got a pri­vate TV, and the chances of hav­ing one is bleak, at least in the fore­see­able future. That how­ever, doesn’t mean there are no activ­i­ties in that direc­tion. Tigray Peo­ples Lib­er­a­tion Front (TPLF) owned Fana and Walta Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter have long been in the TV busi­ness in var­i­ous ways. Both made for­tunes by pro­duc­ing fea­tures and enter­tain­ment pro­grams all to be broad­cast through the pub­licly owned ERTA usu­ally through “spon­sor­ship” schemes. In most cases the four periph­eral regional states of Afar, Ben­is­hangul Gumuz, Gam­bella, and Somali footed the bill. Why these Regional States? Bet­ter saved for another story!

ethiopian-broadcasting-corporationCur­rently the most con­ve­nient excuse to delay the licens­ing of pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing is the com­plete tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal trans­mis­sion. While most of this is a game shrouded in tech­ni­cal lingo, it is not even clear who is lead­ing the tran­si­tion: ERTA, EBA or the Ethiopian Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Agency, which for the most part has pre­ferred to stay mute.

The newly appointed Direc­tor Gen­eral of EBA, Zeray Asge­dom — until recently head of ERTA — told par­tic­i­pants of a sem­i­nar that after the tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal, there will be scores of local TV chan­nels (other offi­cials are more spe­cific putting the chan­nels at 22). Accord­ing to lat­est infor­ma­tion, the tran­si­tion will be com­pleted in 2016, that is, in less than two years. Talk­ing about the buzz sur­round­ing analog-digital talk, it has noth­ing to do with the vari­ety of ideas enter­tained in the media, rather it is just about a bet­ter way of receiv­ing signals.In the dig­i­tal for­mat one either gets clear images or noth­ing; no blurry or flick­er­ing sig­nals. That’s the most basic com­po­nent of the whole issue.

What­ever the excuses for not issu­ing licenses for pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing, the more altru­is­tic motive of the delay lies somewhere else. It seems they are giv­ing Fana time to fin­ish their sta­tion which has been in the pipeline for the last cou­ple of years. Cur­rently some of their radio pro­grams are taped in broad­cast tele­vi­sion for­mat just in time for the real­iza­tion of their inevitable foray in the TV business.

Only when Fana starts trans­mis­sion that oth­ers will have a legal and moral ground at least to apply for the licenses. As to Fana, when and if they are capa­ble of launch­ing their TV, they don’t even bother to get a per­mit; that’s exactly what they did when plung­ing into the radio busi­ness in the wee hours of the cur­rent regime’s ascen­sion to power.

The President talks; just listen and hope

In 2003 the government wanted to solve the “problem” of Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (EFJA) once and for all. Unlike other civil society and professional organizations which already had surrogates implanted, it took time to infiltrate the Association. In many ways EFJA was more vocal than others. They also managed to rally international human rights groups behind them.

The Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA),which is as independent as the state run media, was not helping matters either. Its docile leadership was good for nothing.

However, EFJA was still suspended on technicalities. The Ministry of Justice claimed the Association had not been audited and was operating without license. Hardly anyone bought that excuse.

So one of the solution to this perennial problem was to create an organization in the name of the private press.  Some members who had issues with the leadership were used as Trojan horse. While EFJA was far from perfect, the intervention played in their favor. In the eyes of international press watchdogs they looked like a victim.

To that end, the government created its own “independent” media association christened as Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU). The Union was to be led by an employee of TPLF owned Walta Information Center. Ever since its creation, the Union has been used as an attack dog whenever the ruling party needs their service.

Recently the President of ENJU appeared in the clueless national Amharic daily Addis Zemen to pour scorn on award winning journalist Eskinder Nega. Clearly the government is under pressure from all corners to release the jailed blogger who is serving an 18 year term on far-fetched accusations of terrorism. The leader of the Union didn’t hide his disdain to the person he was supposed to defend. For him the one time publisher was a terrorist, fascist and everything in between. Words were not enough to curse and maul Eskinder even to the level of saying they don’t know him as a journalist. It’s not clear then why he was part of the discussion at all.

The New York based press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was not spared the condemnation. Odd as it may sound, one of the reasons CPJ took the heat was for not helping ENJU.

Two of a kind
On the bright side though, the Union’s President talked about two imprisoned journalists – Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye – for whom they claimed to do everything “in accordance with the law” to secure their release. If bashing Eskinder will bring the freedom of the other two, so be it.

Reeyot has been in jail since June 2011. According to the sentence she should serve five years in prison. While the charges encompass a long range of sins connected to terrorist activities, what angered the rulers was a picture of graffiti allegedly taken by her and sent to a U.S. based website.

woubshet tayeWoubshet has been an editor of the defunct Amharic weekly Awramba Times. The father of one was sentenced to a 14-year prison term, two of which served since his arrest. Last year just in time for the Ethiopian New Year, there was talk about his eminent release alongside two Swedish journalists pardoned on an 11-year sentence. However, a Ministry of Justice official quashed that hope when he said there was no request for his pardon.

Up with hope!
It is not certain whether the President was talking for the government. Could he be having some information about their release; and who knows if they are scrambling to  get a little piece of credit when the two are finally set free.

It is customary to grant pardon during Ethiopian New Year that falls on September 11. That might as well be a sign that the courageous journalists may be walking out of jail as free persons. We will keep our fingers crossed.