December 19, 2007

Ethiopia cracks open airwaves to commercial radio

Meaza Birru has started the country's first private station.
By Nicholas Benequista | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 19, 2007 edition

Reporter Nicholas Benequista discusses the efforts of two Ethiopian journalists to launch private radio stations.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - 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.
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