Web series threatens to unravel strained relationship

KIGALI, Rwanda A documentary has sparked a diplomatic row between the governments of neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, threatening to unravel one of the region’s most delicate relationships.

The four-part series, “Inside Rebel Territory: Rag-Tag Fighters of the Oromo Liberation Front,” documents the training of fighters for a rebel group operating in the disputed Oromia region of Ethiopia.

For more than 30 years, the Oromo Liberation Front has fought a separatist struggle with Ethiopia — what the group describes as a “national liberation struggle” but which the government in Addis Ababa brands a terrorist movement.

Ethiopian officials tried to muzzle the doc before its August broadcast on Kenyan commercial web Nation Television, owned by the Nation Media Group.

In a stiffly worded protest to the Nation Media Group, Ethiopian Ambassador Disasa Dirribsa labeled the OLF “a terrorist group whose activities have been known to be anti-democratic and anti-peace.”

He accused NTV of speaking “for these terrorist elements in our sub-region,” and even went so far as to “question NTV’s covert or overt political agenda.”

After tense negations with its Ethiopian counterpart, Kenya’s foreign ministry concurred, citing the program as a threat to the country’s national interests.

Nation Media Group editorial director Joe Odindo calls “Inside Rebel Territory,” made by NTV reporter Yassin Juma and cameraman Eric Okoth, a “very straight program, factual and balanced.”

“It’s an introduction to the Oromo issue,” he says. “It did not go into the complexities of the Oromo problem in Ethiopia.”

The contrast between Kenya, which enjoys one of Africa’s freest media environments, and Ethiopia could not be more stark.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia is one of the most repressive regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, with heavy prison sentences common for journalists considered guilty of defamation or publishing false news.

A journalist for the Oromo service of Ethiopia’s state-run ETV has been in prison since 2005, accused of being an OLF informant.

The flap over “Inside Rebel Territory” comes at a time of increasing tension and uncertainty in East Africa, with violence in Somalia threatening to destabilize the region.

Pro-Western governments in Addis Ababa and Nairobi have become important bulwarks against a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. And economic interests are at stake as well, as a proposed railway link between the two countries reflects the growing importance of their economic ties.

Despite the sensitivity of the doc’s subject — which was, Odindo admits, a “military security issue” for Ethiopia — NTV refused to pull it.

It delayed airing the final two parts of the series for two days as it reviewed the content for balance and offered to interview the Ethiopian ambassador for the doc’s final part, but was rebuffed.

The Kenyan government backed down.

“They wanted certain things, but when they looked at the program, they realized what they were concerned about had already [been addressed],” says Odindo.

“We aired the program, because we have a duty to do so, and we have the freedom to do so,” he says.

The four-part series can now be seen on NTV’s YouTube channel.

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