KeDitu WeDeMaatu!

On the eve of election 2005, Radio Fana prepared a discussion-forum to all private print media owners and stakeholders, entitled “Ethiopia’s press media: Keyet, Wedet”?!.

The forum was open to anyone interested to participate, through phone call or in person, to question or answer or comment, airing Live for more than 2 hrs for about 4 Sunday mornings.

Although the discussion was conducted in a rare democratic fashion: granting anonymity to callers, ample time for replies/repliers, and fair opportunity to all; most of the private printed media owners who seem to have the Opposition’s interest at heart refused to participate. The reason, given through either phone calls, letters or rumors, ranged from questioning the logic in Radio Fana’s (“a mouth-piece of the government’s”) role of moderator for a forum on press-freedom, to the legitimacy of FM radio stations in Ethiopia, to other ridiculous-sounding comments one observer said were a “yeNaate meQeNet aDenaQefegn” kind of excuses from people who lacked the intellectual and professional confidence in their ability to face, and survive, the heat! A notion I found pretty convincing when considering how embarassingly crude & unprofessional most of the articles found on private [and sometimes government] newspapers were. Addis Admass, Fortune, Capital and Reporter seem to be the only exceptions out of the hundreds of privately-owned Gazettes that mushroomed pre-Mircha 97.

If, infact, memory serves me right, the only member of the private press who faithfully participated in both the phone and in-person discussions all throughout the month was Zerihun Teshome: Managing Director of Birhan Printing & Advertising Agency, editor to the then twice-weekly newspaper “Iftin” and spouse to Voice of America Amharic Desk’s ex-member Mimi Sebhatu. A woman who seems to exhibit the same fearlessness, intelligence and eloquence her husband is known for, from what I observed on ETV yesterday afternoon.

Inspite of a rumor that the couple eat out of the government’s hand, Zerihun’s position on Ethiopia’s press freedom wasn’t one of defending the ruling party. Far from it! He admitted there were problems, problems that even his newspaper with its reputation of “anti-opposition publication”, goes through everyday. But believed “a wise boy cries holding onto what was given him”. That democracy was a process, a process of growth, and that the private press should assist in this growth instead of (from what he observed the likes of “TOmaar”, “TObia” and “Menelik” doing for the last 14 years) behaving like a man who keeps taking a “seBez” off the roof of his “GoJo bet”* every morning.

This prophesy seems to have come true! Ethiopia’s legislative organ has approved a controversial Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, despite the outcry within and outside Parliament on July 1, 2008. A day MP Bulcha Demekssa of OFDM reportedly called “the darkest… for the press industry.”

I guess a Congratulations is in order: To the dumb assholes who helped the government take from the little this country had in the way of freedom of speech!! Hope they are happy now!

* a roof made of long-stemmed grass