London — Usually stories about media freedom and broadcasting in Africa are all about murdered journalists, the shutdown of broadcast stations and repressive laws. So it makes a change to tell the story of Ethiopia where the conditions are being created for a much more open media. Russell Southwood looks at the significant changes and talks to Welela Haileselessie, Deputy Managing Director, Kana TV about how it's producing a wider range of local content.
Ethiopia's new Prime Minister Prime Abiy Ahmed was sworn in on 2 April 2018. He promised to reform Ethiopia:"Building democratic institutions is a matter of survival for us. Freedom is not a gift granted from government to its people; but rather a basic human right."
In late May 2018, an Ethiopian court dropped charges against two diaspora media organisations: Ethiopian Satellite Radio and Television (ESAT) and the Oromo Media Network (OMN). According to prosecutors, all the accused were involved in "attempts to overthrow the constitutionally formed government." A month later OMN had come home to Ethiopia and was reporting on a political rally organized in in support of the Prime Minister in the capital Addis Ababa. Sadly there was a grenade attack aimed at the Prime Minister in which two people were killed.
In another unprecedented step opposition leader Merera Gudina, who had been only recently released from prison, was appointed in July 2018 to the board of the state-run broadcaster Ethiopian Broadcast Corporation (EBC).
Ethiopia's new leader has initiated efforts to revise legislation covering media, civil society, and anti-terrorism laws. An independent advisory group has been established, and discussions are underway with government, civic, and media leaders to amend or repeal laws that have resulted in widespread local and international criticism.
Ethiopia's new government communications minister Ahmed Shide said in September 2018 that the country can expect institutional and legislative improvements. "Media and communications reform is one of the high priority sectors for this government," the minister said.
The reform process has been accompanied by the opening up of the media market to new private broadcast stations: some of these are diaspora stations coming home and others are homegrown. State owned stations like EBC and Fana now face competition from Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS), LTB, Nahoo TV, JTV, Kana TV and most recently Arts TV. Haileselasse told me that Ethiopians have been gripped by the changes and have followed them closely on the broadcast news.
Kana TV is joint venture between Moby Group and a group of entrepreneurs in Ethiopia including Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Elias Schulze, Nazrawi Ghebreselasie and Addis Alemayehou. The local vehicle is BeMedia, a fully Ethiopian owned and operated entity led by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari as the GM and it is Kana TV's exclusive media production company:"Moby Group is the technical and operating partner. BeMedia is an exclusive local production partner to Kana Television - this means BeMedia helps produce for and sells to Kana Television much of the content which it airs on Kana via Nilesat."
With its steady diet of Amharic-subtitled entertainment and drama, satellite broadcaster Kana TV became one of the most watched channels. According to a GeoPoll survey in Q1, 2017 it attracted a 32.5% audience share followed by EBS with 15.8% and state-owned EBC1 only on 15.4%. The rest of the channels had 10% or less audience share. Kana TV was strongly committed to audience surveys but it has been hard to get enough broadcasters to pay for continuous market surveys.
Kana TV still has "a substantial audience presence. It's a wide demographic with everybody watching." But two things have changed. Firstly, the excitement surrounding the political reforms mean that Ethiopians have gone back to the "horse's mouth", the state broadcaster EBC, to watch the Government channel's news programmes. Kana TV now runs a daily news bulletin hosted by Zena Qimsha.
Secondly, to meet the Government local content quota of 50%, it has built its own 1,100 sq m Kana Production Studios, which has hosted among other things live concerts and the 2018 Addis Foto Fest. Kana TV's big advantage is the age of its staff: the average age is 24:"We're teaching them certain skills and many have come straight out of college."
New local production has included: a 30 min business show (Shigela); a comedy show like the Daily Show in the USA (Yaz Lekek); personal profiles of successful Ethiopians including a race driver, a cake designer and artists, singers and bands (Masters at Work); a 60 second cooking segment (Kanalicious) and a drama production series is in the works.
The station found a young women on Instagram called Danayit and has made her a celebrity through her appearances on the channel. It has also partnered with American childrens' channel Sesame Street to create a localized version that will be called Sesame Teret Teret.
The growth in the number of channels means that advertisers have more options but Haileselasse is confident that the advertising market will grow. There's a strong feeling that if the reforms take hold, the economy will grow as opportunities for the private sector expand.
Kana TV's youthful staff are well engaged with social media. The station has 1.1 million likes on its Facebook page and all its local content is uploaded on You Tube:"The diaspora audience likes the 3-5 minutes news highlights." #Time in particular gets high levels of engagement.
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