Whatever happened to private TV in Ethiopia

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 3rd, 2014
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By Hindessa Abdul

Last week, the Southern Regional State launched their own TV station. Debub TV is expected to air a ten-hour programming from its station in Hawassa to the region’s estimated 16 million people. So far they were airing a one hour broadcast through Ethiopian Radio Television Agency (ERTA). Typically, they would produce their program from the regional mass media agency, then send the one-hour tape to Addis Ababa to be broadcast on the national TV.

From now on, the Region wouldn’t use the help of others to get on air. The station is a beneficiary of a late-comer advantage, as such they are said to have acquired state of the art production equipment installed by MJO Broadcast at a cost of ETB 180 million (close to $10 mil).

All said and done, content wise, there will hardly be much of a difference from what the national TV is offering. It may as well be the same old channel probably with a different intro to it.

Almost all the regional stations are replicating what the national TV is broadcasting. The TV spectrum is doomed to the exclusive monopoly of the ruling party ideology.

A few weeks back word came from the most unlikeliest of officials. Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda was quoted as saying: “Issuing license for TV broadcasting needs extreme caution.” As the media can be used in nation building, Abadula argued, words can have the power to break society apart.

If one already allows radio — albeit FM only — the potential damage the “words” could bring on the screen, if at all, is quite minimal. If you allow radio, which can be heard anywhere and everywhere, why not TV which is less ubiquitous.

A decade after the establishment of Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), which is responsible for issuing licenses, the country hasn’t got a private TV, and the chances of having one is bleak, at least in the foreseeable future. That however, doesn’t mean there are no activities in that direction. Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) owned Fana and Walta Information Center have long been in the TV business in various ways. Both made fortunes by producing features and entertainment programs all to be broadcast through the publicly owned ERTA usually through “sponsorship” schemes. In most cases the four peripheral regional states of Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, and Somali footed the bill. Why these Regional States? Better saved for another story!

Currently the most convenient excuse to delay the licensing of private TV broadcasting is the complete transition from analog to digital transmission. While most of this is a game shrouded in technical lingo, it is not even clear who is leading the transition: ERTA, EBA or the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency, which for the most part has preferred to stay mute.

The newly appointed Director General of EBA Zeray Asgedom – until recently head of ERTA – told participants of a seminar that after the transition from analog to digital, there will be scores of local TV channels (other officials are more specific putting the channels at 22). According to latest information, the transition will be completed in 2016, that is, in less than two years. Talking about the buzz surrounding analog-digital talk, it has nothing to do with the variety of ideas entertained in the media, rather it is just about a better way of receiving signals.In the digital format one either gets clear images or nothing; no blurry or flickering signals. That’s the most basic component of the whole issue.

Whatever the excuses for not issuing licenses for private TV broadcasting, the more altruistic motive of the delay lies some where else. It seems they are giving Fana time to finish their station which has been in the pipeline for the last couple of years. Currently some of their radio programs are taped in broadcast television format just in time for the realization of their inevitable foray in the TV business.

Only when Fana starts transmission that others will have a legal and moral ground at least to apply for the licenses. As to Fana, when and if they are capable of launching their TV, they don’t even bother to get a permit; that’s exactly what they did when plunging into the radio business in the wee hours of the current regime’s ascension to power.

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