(ALEXANDRIA TIMES) -- In an office building on Alexandria’s west side, accused terrorists work long hours promoting free speech in their native Ethiopia.
They’re considered enemies of the state back home. In America, we call them journalists.
The newsroom of Ethiopian Satellite Television, known as ESAT, is bare, save for tangles of audiovisual cables and utilitarian office furniture. The walls are cream and spare, and the office’s only color comes from the broadcast studio’s green screen, which allows anchors a high-tech backdrop that betrays the newsroom’s humble reality.
ESAT’s local office is one of three worldwide — the others are in London and Amsterdam — that provides Ethiopian-related news for thousands of Ethiopians around the world. Many of its employees are exiled reporters who were labeled terrorists — some were imprisoned — by the country’s autocratic government for questioning officials in public, said Shawel Betru, a video editor for ESAT.
“The political condition in Ethiopia is not conducive to a free-minded person or a person who has no support whatsoever for the government’s policy,” Betru said.
Working at ESAT is a labor of love for free-flowing information, which its founders and employees say is nonexistent in their homeland. The government owns the country’s sole Internet service provider, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Making a living in Ethiopia is feasible for someone as educated as Betru, who got his Ph.D. in international environmental economics from the University of Tokyo. But his political beliefs keep him in America.
“The [Ethiopian] government’s policy is ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’” he said.
Ethiopia is a relatively stable African country despite famine and two rebel groups vying for control. But critics of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi say stability comes at the cost of shackling free speech. ESAT’s goal is to loosen those shackles with information.
“If you don’t get information freely, it means you are under tyranny,” said Abebe Gellaw, a co-founder who occasionally freelances for the Alexandria Times. “So the free flow of information is so powerful, any tyrant gets stressed out when information is out there. What we’re trying to do is stress out the tyrannical system by providing critical information and news and analysis that people are otherwise not allowed to get.”
And now is the time, Gellaw said. Revolutions and new regimes have come and gone, but often Ethiopians did not know precisely what they wanted — except change, he said.
Other opportunities came and went, but not until the Internet and social media came of age has the window been so wide open for an information revolution.
Still, an opportunity doesn’t guarantee success. ESAT’s website is blocked in Ethiopia, and most of its traffic comes from emigrants. Just as Zenawi silenced Voice of America’s broadcasts in 2010, his government jammed ESAT’s satellite radio signal three months into existence.
As such, the organization uses several shortwave radio frequencies to juke the regime. If a broadcast is jammed Tuesday, ESAT changes the frequency by Wednesday.
It’s a trans-ocean game of cat-and-mouse.
About 85 percent of Ethiopians have access to radio broadcasts, according to Gellaw, though that doesn’t mean everyone listens. ESAT’s primary competition is state-run media like the Addis Zemen newspaper. Rather than hire professional journalists, Zenawi purged the staff and plugged party members into the newspaper’s top posts, said Mohamed Keita, advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Africa program.
Keita said the newspaper’s editorial board intimidates the country’s few privately owned publications by calling their staff terrorists and traitors. The government’s sour relationship with the press forces Ethiopian publications like ESAT into a catch-22: The government rarely speaks with reporters, yet labels their news outfit an opposition group when they file one-sided stories.
“Ethiopian politics are so toxic and polarized,” Keita said. “The government perceives them as being pro-opposition, but it’s because when they try to talk to government officials, they don’t give them any comments.”
ESAT is a unique news outfit to say the least. Journalists are charged with objectively covering, in some cases, the Ethiopian regime responsible for their persecution.
“That tends to be one of the issues with Ethiopia-exiled media,” said Keita, who could not speak specifically to ESAT because he does not read Amharic. “The best news organizations strive to be balanced as opposed to being a platform where people just vent their anger against the regime.”
Indeed, ESAT radio reporter Mesay Mekonnen recently spoke with a high-ranking Ethiopian government official only because the official mistook the acronym for another agency.
“We try to talk — we want to talk — to the government, but it is very difficult,” Mekonnen said. “Most Ethiopians know this is not acceptable.”
But the greatest challenge for ESAT’s staff? The very people they’re reporting for are the hardest to reach.
“We have created this powerful media platform, which is a very good thing,” Mekonnen said. “But it should reach people in Ethiopia. It’s for them.”
Source: http://alextimes.com/2012/05/alexandria ... thiopians/