When I was a junior in high school, I used to pass by the Ministry of Information of Ethiopia on my way to the library. One thing I remember the most was how I have to cross the street before I get close to the office or get yelled at by the security forces. The office was guarded by highly armed security forces and they sure have no time to befriend anyone. You crossed them they break you. Simple.
As a little kid I wondered why they need to guard this old building with antennas more than the palace or any other important office. I wondered about the attention of the security forces. One day, I run into older gentleman while waiting to cross the street to the other side. In my frustration, I exclaimed “what is the big deal about this place” and the older gentleman shook his head and said to me “the deal, young man, this place is a ministry of information where they have radio and TV stations.” I was surprised even more once I knew what the place was and I asked again “so, what is that mean?” the older gentleman gave me that look as if he is looking into my young naive soul and said “young man, in order to control society, one have to control the media. controlling media is simply controlling hearts and minds of people”
His explanation stayed with me for long time. A nice coincidence gave me a lifetime of lesson. You control media, You control hearts and minds!
This month we are hearing a lot about months long 50th anniversary of Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. With a budget of millions of Ethiopian birr to celebrate the golden anniversary, Ethiopian TV stations show the impact they made and their contribution to the larger society. Yes, there are many positive contribution in the past fifty years. Cultural programs, entertainments, children programs (even if it is very limited the contribution have to be recognized) sports and so on. I mean who forgets the folk tale by Ababa Tesfaye and jokes of Engedawork, Lemenih and Albachew and so on. So yes, there are accomplishments to celebrate and journalists to thank in this anniversary.
Happy 50th Anniversary!
Yet when it comes to the core of a free press, Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation, simply fails flat. The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”
One can argue when it comes to the freedom of expression and hold opinions without interference, Ethiopian government owned TV or radio simply celebrating fifty years of silence. Let’s go back and see what the past fifty years record of Ethiopia TV or radio looks like with the landmark historic events that happened in Ethiopia and how the Press covered it.
Drought of 1972-73: The Ethiopian drought which started in 1950’s and reached its climax in 1972-73 left 60,000 plus Ethiopians dead due to famine. The monarch government of Ethiopia at the time was denying the famine and Ethiopian Television was showing pro government programs rather than sending reporters to cover the famine. Finally, the world knew about it by 1973 production of the ITV programme The Unknown Famine by Jonathan Dimbleby. The world and Ethiopians in the unaffected part of the country saw the famine and that resulted in overthrow of the King from power in 1974.
Red Terror 1977-78: Red Terror or Qey Shibir was a violent criminal campaign by the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Undoubtedly, the most darkest time in Ethiopian history, this campaign was estimated to take the life of more than half a million people. Some of us who are old enough to remember back, seeing a dead student with a sign of “Red Terror” in the street gutters simply explain the wickedness of the time. A low level government cadres can play judge jury and executor and simple shoot who they believe to be anti-government. The scar of these time still evident in the citizens of Ethiopia near and far. One of the bad memories of Ethiopians of that time was the revolutionary songs and announcements on Ethiopian TV and radios. Mothers sadly wait to hear the list of names that are executed trying to not hear their loved ones mentioned. Ethiopian journalists who were critical of the government was hunted and killed. Journalists like Bealu Girma, disappeared without a trace. Those who kept their job in the TV and radio stations used their God given talent and skill to glamorize the killing machines of the military junta. (Disclaimer: My father and my brother was in the news in 1975, unfortunately they were with the name of those killed)
Shabia and Woyane: While Ethiopian socialist government fought with Woyane and Shabia in the North, Ethiopian TV and radio programs aired socialist propaganda and kept their mouth shut. They failed to inform their listeners about the war and instead gave a wrong impression of peace even when the war started to get closer. As always, Ethiopians focused to get their daily dose of news via VOA, BBC and other foreign media’s. While ETV airing recurring propagandas, residents of Addis Ababa started seeing rebel fighters with their machine guns and grenades walking on the streets. Sadly though, the struggle they die for was not to liberate but to replace an oppressor as another form of oppressor. In the weeks following the take over of the city, same amount of guards started to secure the building and yell at passer-bye’s just as they were before. Only this time they speak Tigregna not Amharic.
10 most censored countries: In 2015, Ethiopia, made it to the top 10 most censored countries list following Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. This list, as shameful it was, showed the pressure our journalists are under in any circumstances. It was not the case of greedy, sold-out, unprofessional journalist that we are dealing with, it was a case of an oppressive, undemocratic, dictatorial government system that put us in the dreaded list of most censored. Journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeot Alemu, Zone nine bloggers are some of the victims and examples of the oppressive system journalists are under in Ethiopia. Yet, in Ethiopian TV and radio programs, not even a single reporting about the conditions of free press in a way it made sense and informed citizens.
Massacre of the Anuak: In December 2003, Anuak diaspora groups started getting a disturbing message from home about a crime committed against them by governement forces to take their land make ways to private companies. According to report by the human rights organization the Oakland Institute, more than 70,000 families are forcefully moved from their ancestral land by the Ethiopian government “villagization’ program to make way for Karuturi Ltd. The Human rights report reads: “On December 13, 2003, in an apparent reprisal for a series of ambushes of highlander civilians carried out by armed Anuak, ENDF soldiers and highlander civilians launched a brutal attack on Gambella town’s Anuak population. A large number of troops from the ENDF’s 43rd Division were in Gambella town when the massacre began and Human Rights Watch estimates that over one hundred of them participated in the massacre.31 Adult Anuak men were the primary targets of the violence but were not its only victims. Soldiers raped several Anuak women, over four hundred Anuak houses were burned to the ground and huge numbers of civilians fled into the forest or took shelter in compounds belonging to two of the town’s largest churches. The commander of Gambella town’s military garrison, Major Tsegaye Beyene, was in Gambella town throughout the massacre and took no apparent action to stop it; indeed, he appears to have directly taken part in the violence.” Yet, Ethiopian Tv and radio programs stayed silent.
Oromo Political Prisoners: There is a saying in Ethiopia, “If you want to learn how to speak Oromo, go to jail” Amnesty international reports Ethiopia’s political prisoners are mostly Oromo’s and the crackdown end up putting thousands of Oromo political activists in jail. Most of the members of Oromo political parties like Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) are thrown in prison and they remind there to this very day. Known figures like Bekele Gerba are taken from their house and thrown in jail without a due process. In mean time, Ethiopian TV and radio programs, cover the awesomeness of Ethiopia’s amazing economical growth and recurring quotes of leaders from the grave.
Oromo protests and Addis Master Plan: In early December 2015, a protest started in a city of Ginchi, because of the government’s plan of expanding Addis Ababa’s territory into Oromia administered areas. In the effort to stop a private company’s bulldozers from destroying a Chilimo forest, residents of Ginchi started protesting and the government starting shooting innocent protesters. Most young students and some children laid dead in the streets. The protest erupted throughout Oromia and in an effort to squash the movement the Government set up command posts and dispatched a brutal Agazi brigade which escalates the number of dead quickly. As of today, 140 plus dead, 2000 plus injured and 35000 imprisoned. As expected, reporters of Ethiopian TV and radio stations did not rushed to the scene to report the dead or asked the locals what happened. Instead, they stayed in their studios and interviewed government officials which denied the cruelty and murder. The officials also angered many for their disrespectful response that valued property ahead of life and called the protesters “demons”. To this day, there is no reporting of the real cause of the protest and investigation made by Ethiopian TV and radio programs.
I am sure there are so many other important events I missed. (The election of 1996 and the Ambo protests of 2014 comes to mind). I know these are not deep and detailed reporting of the incidents. All I am trying to do is show an example of missed opportunities. So now, let me go back to my point.
When I say, your 50 anniversary is a sham, I am not saying it to hurt feelings or being mean. I am being a realist. I myself was interviewed in Ethiopian TV and radio programs and I had a fabulous time doing it. The journalists I met and spoken to are the best and still my favorites. But, media organizations have to be more and above one’s interest. Their existence and importance is measured by the difficult point they shine light to, their presence have to be to educate and inform citizens so they can make a better judgment in their elections and day to day life. By missing that, you failed us all.
Here is my cheers to you for your fifty years of silence! Fifty years of silence that failed to shine light about millions starved and still starving. Fifty years of silence that gave deaf ears to the screams of thousands behind bars. Fifty of silence that missed important opportunities to get to the bottom of issues and inform and educate. Cheers to you and yours!
The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.