columnBy Daniel Berhane
When the Ethiopian parliament enacted the anti-terrorism law in mid-2009, many of its contents provoked a heated debate.
But little, if any, attention was given to the National Anti-Terrorism Coordination Committee established by the legislation, comprising the heads of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Federal Police and the National Intelligence & Security Service, chaired by the Director of the latter. It has been four years and counting without a public statement or report from this committee; either because it is not functional or because it has chosen not to draw attention to itself.
In stark contrast, its offshoot - the Joint Anti-terror Taskforce of the National Intelligence & Security Service and the Federal Police - has turned into a media production unit.
Its latest production, in collaboration with the state-owned broadcaster, was the documentary film produced in collaboration with ETV, entitled "Jihadist Harekat".
The main thesis of the film can be hastily summarised as revolving around two related groups who had been working together towards an Islamic state by using terror and colour-revolution tactics.
The first group, named "Harekatul Shebable Mujehadin Fi Biladel Hijraitain", is a youth movement to establish an Islamic state in the area covering Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda, and is said to be led by a man named Aman Assefa (Ismael Assefa). Aman allegedly received ideological training by Daru Bilal, an extremist group based in Nairobi, and military training by Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The second group is led by Kamil Shemsu and Ahmed Mustefa, who were trained on colour-revolution tactics by the Qatari Jasim Sultan (PhD), and said to have tried to "hijack and divert the legal questions of the Muslim" by leading from behind the group of representatives of the Awolia Movement, the year-long weekly protests.
The film presents several eye-catching claims, connections and confessions, but fell short of showing a smoking gun. In fact, the repeated reference to 'police files' and 'intelligence files', without disclosing their contents, made it seem as if the Ethiopian Television (ETV) was merely playing a script written by the taskforce rather than a media report.
Perhaps, ETV's main contribution was the sensationalisation of the film through production techniques.
In their defence, perhaps, they could not share much more evidence publicly, as it would expose their informants and some may be obtained from foreign intelligence agencies. The intense denunciation of the protestors against prospective court witnesses has already forced the case to be tried in closed chambers, let alone being televised on national television.
Apparently, the taskforce and ETV wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Thus, they wanted to present their version of the matter by compensating the gaps through sensationalisation.
As would be expected, this did not go well with the lawyer of the Awolia Movement representatives who are currently on trial on terror related charges. Despite the film's half-hearted insertion of phrases like "suspects", the harm caused to their reputation is irreparable; as the legal presumption is that they are innocent until proven guilty. It cannot be rectified by a court's ruling on their innocence, in a country where the masses regard state-media statements as superior even to the text of the law, let alone a faceless judge in a court.
The impact on the on-going trial is less certain, however. The judges will be presented with whatever is in the film in length and detail. The most compelling argument in this regard is that the judges would have difficulty in acquitting the accused in the face of overwhelming public consensus of their guilt created by the film. While this is generally true, its applicability to this particular case is doubtful.
To begin with, the judges have no illusion of the government's position on the matter. If they can be brave and decide regardless of that, public opinion will be less of a concern for them.
Moreover, the public opinion that matters to them is that of their social class - the educated and the middle class. And, that class takes state media statements with a grain of salt and perceives the Awolia Movement as a harmless one, mishandled by the government. The film, at best, might have made the middle class think, "what if it is true?"
But these are issues for the judiciary to decide, no one else.
Indeed, on the day when the film was scheduled to be broadcast, the High Court, upon the request of the lawyers, issued an injunction order against it and set a date to review it. However, ETV went ahead with its planned broadcast.
How that happened is not fully clear yet. Apparently, the Supreme Court reversed the injunction order a few hours after it was issued in the absence of the defendant's lawyers, who are still disputing the procedure.
Given all these problems, one would ask what the government was intending to achieve with the film. The probable aim is to underline that it is not going to back down, thereby reassuring its allies.
That will also encourage its witnesses and informants, whom the film extolled as patriots. Needless to say, it sent a warning to those organising and backing the protests. This is in addition to the presumable eagerness of the taskforce to present its version of the story to the public, which it might think was not satisfactorily informed by ETV.
But all this could have been achieved through various, albeit time taking, means other than a sensational and controversial film. Even where the latter is necessary, there is no convincing reason for not giving the Court a chance to review it and apply exertions, if need be. That should not worry a resourceful broadcaster who is able to get an injunction within a few hours time.
It is debatable whether the film precluded an impartial trial, but the controversy surrounding it indeed harmed the judiciary's stature. Apparently, this did not worry the co-producers of the film much.