Nation gets first independent network

Ethiopia’s first independent satellite web launched in May, breaking the monopoly long held by pubcaster Ethiopian Television.

Ethiopian Satellite Television began a trial run May 14, with plans to unveil a full slate of original programming in June.

ESAT debuted with a series of reports on last week’s elections — final results are due June 21 — as well as a number of entertainment programs produced in the country’s Amharic language.

Execs said the web’s debut will promote the free flow of information in the country.

“People feel that for the first time in their history, they are now able to watch independent news,” says Fasil Yenealem, ESAT’s managing editor.

He added that Ethiopians “have been bombarded by government propaganda for a long time.”

Ethiopia consistently ranks among the world’s most repressive nations regarding media freedom.

Critics accuse the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of suppressing independent and opposition voices, and ETV regularly broadcasts news stories favorable to the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

During the run-up to the May election, the U.S. rebuked the Ethiopian government for jamming Voice of America radio broadcasts in Amharic.

Yenealem says ESAT will give opposition groups a voice in the country’s political dialogue. But he adds that the channel will present an independent, balanced view in its reporting.

“We try to approach everyone equally,” he says. “We want to (encourage) the government to use this media and to participate in the discussion.”

So far, he says, the government has given ESAT the cold shoulder. Requests for an interview with the communications minister for a recent news segment were rebuffed.

But ESAT execs remain optimistic that the web, according to Yenealem, will “challenge the media blackout that exists in Ethiopia.”

“We hope that the government will also see this media as a positive force to bring democratic change to the country,” he says.

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