Skype me not, Skype me please

If you think you are lost after reading this headline, it is because you probably are, unfortunately unnecessarily.  



On Friday June 22, Shimelis Kemal, Ethiopia’s State Minister for the Government Communication Affairs Office, (GCAO), appeared before the local media to give the state’s briefing on current affairs. His appearance marked – hopefully – the end of similar briefings last held almost three years ago when his office inexplicably stopped what was a regular ritual once in every week. Shimelis said this would now continue to be held once in every two weeks.

Two weeks before Shimelis’s appearance, local and international media and human rights activists have exhaustedly reported on an alleged ban in Ethiopia of the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), mainly Skype and Google talk.

Shortly before the news of Skype ban went viral, in the first week of June, Human Rights Watch, (HRW), released yet another report on forced displacement by the government of Ethiopia of indigenous tribes from parts of the South Omo zone for planned sugar plantations and factories.

Shimelis has given counter statements for both accusations that his office has failed to do as soon as both reports surfaced – he admitted he personally believes his office’s handling of the news about VoIP should have been clearer before confusion took over. It now claims a few articles in the newly drafted telecommunication proclamation were massively misunderstood by the international media.

Shimelis’s briefing also included information about the nation’s budget for the fiscal year of 2012-2013, security in Gambella, in southern Ethiopia, and a few other draft proclamations including the one on the proportion of newspapers ads that was recently tabled to the national parliament. As such he has done his part of the job.

But the job of selling what the government claims is its righteous acts takes more than a counter statement that it is bent on providing, and has been doing so, for every accusation it faces.

Exhausting ping pong

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Ethiopia is no stranger to controversy. Since the coming into power in 1991 of the current government, reports by various human rights activists about systematic human rights violations, brutal suppression of dissent, the issue of exiled journalists and the ever evaporating free press in Ethiopia has remained a fodder for the international media. Needles to say, these reports are often followed by dismissive reports from the government communication office, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and sometimes its embassies abroad only to end up, once again, being just another fodder for the media. Think of the yearly US State Department reports and the scramble by the media to write or broadcast about it and the predictable reactions from the Ethiopian government usually bashing the reports as “baseless.”

This time again, Shimelis blamed HRW of “recycling baseless accusations” and of using the back door to gather its information while “the front door is wide open.”

In a statement released on the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs too sharply criticized what it called was a “smear campaign bandwagon” on the confusing news of VoIP. “Gallons of ink were spilt over the week to declare Ethiopia as a place where freedom to receive and impart information had been curtailed in a most absolute form,” the statement reads.

As is a customary practice to give the media the other side of the story nothing is wrong with the reactions both from GCAO and MoFA. But this has become an exhausting and antiquated ping pong that needs to end and end now.

Where the truth is

Responding to a question from this magazine on whether it was possible for the media to independently verify the claims and counter claims, Shimelis insisted – with his assuring confidence – that the media in Ethiopia, both local and international (and anyone who is interested for that matter) was free to travel to controversial places that have made unpleasant headlines in the past and find out the truth. These issues of controversy now range from the old tales of human rights violation in Ogaden to suppression of dissent and press freedom to extra judiciary arrest of alleged terrorism perpetrators and plenty more. The gap between what is being claimed by the media and human rights activists and what is being claimed by the government, nevertheless, is widening by the day.

There is no other factor to blame for this but a complete lack of independent report. The local media is strapped of cash and courage to make the extra miles needed to give independent accounts of the events and is terrified of the consequences anyway; domestic rights activists are afraid too and the international ones are curtailed by distance and an intimidating bureaucracy. The government uses that as an excuse to discredit many reports; but it has not been keen enough to help and protect independent journalists and rights groups to make their independent investigations either; nor is it clear if it wants to.

What Shimelis said will be the resumption of a regular briefing by his office to the media is hugely welcome, but after years of similar and tiresome PR maneuvers a shift in sincerity, tactic and approach is long overdue.

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