February 20, 2013
by Teklu Abate
Established on April 24, 2010 “to promote free press, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia”, the Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT) becomes one of the most trusted and reliable broadcast media. ESAT has its main studio in Amsterdam and branch studios in Washington D.C. and London. Its radio and television programmes cover nearly all socio-economic, cultural and political issues and topics. The major audience is the Ethiopian majority who happens to suffer from lack of credible and non-partisan media. In just nearly three years and despite serious interference by the Ethiopian government, ESAT is successfully creating a society of its own. A society who longs for freedom of all kinds, rule of law, and democratic governance in Ethiopia.
In this paper, I first try to highlight the various roles ESAT is playing to meet its objectives. Well, one could argue that its role is one and one- to be an independent and credible voice to the voiceless. This is obvious but my focus is on the specific roles ESAT is playing in its effort to reach its audience. Through such an exposition, it is possible to better meter to what extent ESAT services are being delivered to a variety of people. In the second part of the paper, I raise some important issues and challenges that should attract ESAT’s and the audience’s attention for a much higher impact. The issues and challenges may relate to the services and future engagements.
My motivation to write this paper is related to ESAT fund raising events taking place in several European cities. Europe is being astounded by the famous and all-times trusted human rights activist, Tamagn Beyene. Discussions among friends and families in Europe are about ESAT and Tamagn. My discussion with a friend of mine stimulated the write up of this paper. Generally, the paper has that purpose of 1) commending ESAT for its services so far, and 2) suggesting other ways of scaling up and sustaining its services.
The following roles presumably characterize ESAT as an independent voice for the voiceless. Mainly because of the multitude of roles it plays, ESAT managed to stand stronger and taller than before. Keeping up and expanding those roles is crucial for its future existence.
ESAT is a particularly useful asset for the Ethiopian Diaspora who is living thousands of miles away from home. Living and working abroad for an indefinite time is a challenge for the many. They feel detached from their country and feel unable to contribute. Even government communicators argue that the Diaspora play an alien politics because they have no first-hand touch with reality in Ethiopia. But now and thanks to ESAT, we feel as if we reside in Ethiopia. We hear and see Ethiopians from North to South, West to East part of the country talking on ESAT. We feel as if we are brought closer to Ethiopia. That is because distance is breached by ESAT.
Due to work and other obligations, Ethiopian Diaspora seem to have limited time to spend in a social milieu. And in several cities, even husband and wife do not have much time to spend together. That may create a sense of loneliness and detachment. Thanks to advances in smartphone and tablet technologies, ESAT demonstratively plays a role of a reliable and credible friend. At work, on our way, at home and elsewhere, ESAT is with us. That creates a sense of up-to-datedness, community, and freedom.
People from the Haile Selassie generation, the Mengistu HaileMariam times, and the ‘new’ generation co-exist in 21st Century Ethiopia. These three generations are significantly different in a whole array of fronts: on views of society, government, democracy, development and so forth. The ‘old’ generation did not have forum for meaningful discussion with the new generation. Worst is that there is a misunderstanding between the generations when it comes to Ethiopia’s ‘yesterday’ politics. Because of ESAT, the new generation get that excellent chance of talking and listening to several of the most influential personalities of the old generation. I could argue that ESAT is surely creating a bridge between the ‘that generation’ and ‘this generation’.
Professionals from the old and new generations are getting interviewed on ESAT. Our knowledge of key social issues such as economics, education, politics, technology, military, and so forth is improving. All these are definitely crucial for public policy making. Although government policy makers and planners do not openly thank ESAT, they could attend to its services and hence they could get important lessons to draw on. Even if they do not do that, the knowledge being created will be seminal for people interested to study Ethiopia. But for now, our understanding of key issues is self-fulfilling and empowering, thanks to ESAT. In a way, ESAT could also be considered as a think tank that could better inform individuals and public policy makers and planners.
ESAT aims to be the voice of the voiceless. The question is: who are the voiceless? Are the silent Ethiopian majority the voiceless? Are opposition politicians and parties the voiceless? Are the ‘independent’ the voiceless? Yes, all these could be considered the voiceless because they are denied of their natural and constitutional rights to freely assemble, talk and oppose. Talking truth is these days tantamount to being a terrorist. Trying to hold the governing party accountable for what it is doing is considered an effort to disrupt peace and retard development initiatives. These are the real voiceless.
Surprisingly enough, even people from the governing party are using ESAT as their voice. Mister Sebhat Nega, perhaps the most disgruntled and mannerless politician Ethiopia ever saw, is gashing out his grievances and frustrations through ESAT. Other politicians from the governing party, even Bereket Simon who persecutes journalists and who works day and night to block ESAT, are constantly invited to talk to millions of Ethiopians through the common platform- ESAT. This role is edifying and should be sustained.
EPRDF has that so far proven to be effective strategy of weeding out journalists, human right defenders, politicians, and academics from Ethiopia. The party puts immense pressure to make sure such people leave for foreign lands. The assumption is that once migrated, they would distance themselves from political struggle because they would spend their entire time and resources simply to cope up with the new demands of life abroad. And that strategy worked well for decades until ESAT decided to push it to the limit. In one way or another persecuted journalists created that front and started to ‘fight’ back. This sends shockwaves to Government Communications Officer Bereket Simon and to the entire EPRDF structure. They managed to block ESAT services for some time. But ESAT appeared the invincible.
This is a great lesson to all Ethiopian professionals: the spirit of invincibility even if they are thousands of miles away from home. I wish medical doctors, academics, lawyers, engineers and other professionals in the Diaspora create genuine associations and then to start contributing to ensure freedom, democracy, and human rights. Issues and
Even for a better service, ESAT needs to consider some issues mentioned below. I am not concluding that ESAT board and/or the management are not aware of these as I do not have information on that. I just would like to express the concerns several people are entertaining in one way or the other. The assumption is that if ESAT adequately and timely deals with the following issues and challenges, it will create much more confidence in its audience. That is in the end seminal to garner sustained public support sufficient enough to let ESAT stay on air.
ESAT website maintains useful information about its policy and general integrity. This is useful but a lot more should be said about the organization itself. Who are members of ESAT Board, for instance? And who are the management? And who is the editor-in-chief? I do not think that ESAT wants to keep the identity of staff and board members confidential. They are at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and hence keeping the identity of those who are on the frontline makes little sense.
Mainly because of the gigantic nature of our daily political problems, ESAT seems to devote much of the effort on present-day Ethiopia. This is extremely useful as it will help us to make informed decisions at individual and group/collective levels. While focusing on the present, it is extremely necessary to make future-oriented analyses and predictions as well. For instance, what kind of governance is best for Ethiopia? What should be Ethiopia’s future positioning when it comes to foreign policy? What social, economic, and political issues might be strangling Ethiopia in the future? How could we sort of maneuver and make collective decisions to survive? These and related issues could be addressed through expert panels, formal studies, and simulations.
For issues related to credibility, impact, and of course media tradition, it seems better to invite experts and the elderly to make presentations or interviews. That is what ESAT has been doing. We have had that excellent chance of learning from professionals from diverse backgrounds. As a voice of the voiceless, it may be interesting and useful to interview ordinary citizens, too. Allowing the audience to leave short messages would not be sufficient to ensure participatory efforts. It is thus vital to interview youngsters, kids, and others on whole diverse issues. This way, ESAT could better understand people perceptions and views, which could then be used as stepping stones for further nuanced discussions.
So far, ESAT interviewed Ethiopians only (I mean Ethiopian by birth) with few exceptions. This is not a problem itself. But we could also learn from the experiences of other people. If resources allow, it would be great to interview Eritreans, Somalis, other Africans and other people from the rest of the world. Doing that would be educative and would help to popularize ESAT. It is also useful to galvanize the rest of the world to make commitments to human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world.
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