Ethiopia cracks open airwaves to commercial radio

Meaza Birru has started the country's first private station.

By most accounts, Meaza Birru is patient. Not easily daunted, she waited eight years to have a commercial radio station – the first in Ethiopia.

Ms. Meaza began regular programming on her radio station last week, one of only two people to get FM radio licenses from the Ethiopian government since it legalized commercial radio in 1999.

In a country that has one of the most tightly controlled presses in the world, some skeptics think the issuance of the two radio licenses is no more than a token gesture by the government. Press freedom has deteriorated sharply here in the past five years, along with political freedom, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and the Washington-based Freedom House.

Nonetheless, some free-press supporters in Ethiopia, too, see the move as a potential watershed. Tafari Wossen, a leading communications consultant, says the new private radio stations – even if part of a public relations maneuver – may stoke the growing demands for free press. "My generation had no concept of press freedom," he says. "Now the public is developing a taste for it."

Though she knows she will be monitored closely, Meaza says she is taking the first steps to a freer media. "I believe it is a process, and this is the beginning," she says. "The public should have a choice, and I hope many others will come in the future."

Currently, Ethiopia's government controls the only no-cost TV broadcaster, Internet sites are routinely blocked by the state telecommunications monopoly, and only a few private newspapers exist. Independent journalists face harassment and the threat of imprisonment, according to the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

"Even if we recognize gestures such as this, we have not seen spectacular improvements in Ethiopia," said Leonard Vincent, Reporters Without Borders Africa director. "This is part of a campaign by the government to make believe that things are improving."

International broadcasters such as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, BBC World Service, Radio Cairo, and Radio Vatican are the only independent sources for many Ethiopians. Recently, though, BBC Monitoring, which tracks shortwave frequencies globally, has detected interference with the transmissions of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. Government officials deny they are jamming signals.

The government has been particularly wary of freer media since some private newspapers in 2005 rallied behind opposition protests against alleged fraud in federal elections. Thousands were arrested for treason, including 15 journalists who were pardoned or acquitted earlier this year. Still, some journalists remain in prison for violating libel laws. Officials may also want to suppress news related to ongoing conflicts– insurgencies within the country, operations in Somalia, and border disputes with archenemy Eritrea.

According to Mr. Tafari, radio is a particularly sensitive medium in Ethiopia, with its predominantly rural, widely illiterate population. Radio propaganda was a critical factor in the success of Emperor Salassie's campaign to expel Italian occupiers. Underground radio stations – sometimes literally located under the ground – helped the current government, which began as an insurgent movement, overthrow a brutal socialist dictatorship in 1991. "The government is nervous," Tafari says.

The Ethiopian Broadcast Authority said that it will issue more radio licenses, and eventually TV broadcast licenses, once it is confident that the media is mature enough to regulate itself. The agency will monitor Meaza and Mimi to make sure they are not violating the Constitution, offending one of Ethiopia's myriad cultures, infringing on individual rights, or exacerbating ethnic tensions.

If Meaza and Mimi set an agreeable precedent, then more may be allowed to follow. If they do not, they could lose their licenses, or even face criminal charges. "I don't agree with this idea of letting the media say whatever it wants," says Desta Tesfaw, deputy director general of the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority. "This doesn't work in developing countries."

Some critics say Meaza and Mimi Sebihatu, a veteran of Voice of America who is setting up the other private radio station, were selected over 10 other applicants because of pro-government sympathies. Both have had shows on government radio.

Maeza says she has never been censored in seven years on the air, but has known when the government was unhappy with her. Self-censorship, she admits, may be tempting. "We say that it is just like walking on a tightrope because we are in a difficult position."

But Tesfay Hailemariam, a barber in Addis Ababa, is looking forward to more options. He recalls that the military regime used to block the insurgency's radio station. Now, he and his friends crowd into his tiny barbershop, with its one chair and a low wooden bench, to listen to a crackly shortwave broadcast in Amharic, transmitted by Germany's Deutsche Welle. They will be listening to Meaza and Ms. Mimi, they say, with great expectations.

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