The following post is written by William Luk. William is a Senior from Tufts University majoring in International Relations. He is a 2012 Oslo Scholar. He recounts his experience of working closely with Abebe Gellaw, in fighting internet censorship for Ethiopia.
This past summer has undoubtedly been a memorable one for Abebe Gellaw, the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and Ethiopia at large, and definitely for me as well. After meeting Mr. Gellaw at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May as one of the Oslo Scholars, I became much more knowledgeable about the dire situation in Ethiopia. In many respects, the media censorship in Ethiopia is not only comparable but may even be worse than that of China, where I frequently travel to. This came as a surprise to me, as Western media has always portrayed Prime Minister Meles, the dictator of the African country, as an ally. Through Abebe and this experience, my perception of not only Ethiopia, but also the politics of the press has been changed dramatically.
After the Conference, I immediately began working with Abebe. Although I was based in Hong Kong while ESAT is in Washington D.C., I worked telecommunicatively. My major task was to research on the topic of radio signal jamming, which is frequently used by Ethiopian authorities against foreign press. It has been one of the major challenges to ESAT, which tries to broadcast information to Ethiopians back home. Through my research, I learned about the many types of radio jamming, as well as counter jamming technologies. In fact, much of the existing technology in Ethiopia was acquired from China, which has invested heavily in many African countries in past decades, with the help of the Chinese Central Authorities. While no single counter technology is foolproof, there are some methods of radio transmission that are more difficult to penetrate into. Unfortunately, there are costs and obstacles to implementing these methods.
I had a heartfelt moment when I heard that Abebe stood up in the middle of an event attended by Prime Minister Meles in Washington D.C. and shouted “Meles Zenawi is a dictator!” At that instance, Meles was rendered speechless. In the land of the free, Abebe has silenced the dictator that had silenced, and exiled him. I could not begin to imagine how he must have felt– thousands of emotions mixed together in an overall ecstasy – the thrill of free speech. This fundamental right that we take for granted, was exemplified by Abebe in that moment.
Meles died towards the end of the summer. His death was not reported until days after his actual death, which serves to show the suppression and manipulation of information by the Government in Ethiopia. This was good news to Ethiopians whose rights have been restricted or taken away because of his regime. There is no doubt that this is a huge turning point in history. The question lies in whether it will turn for the better, or the worse. After all, a dictator’s death could very well be the beginning of another.
Ethiopia will have many obstacles ahead, from extreme poverty and illiteracy to lacking infrastructure. But the greatest one is finding a leader who will find a solution to the aforementioned problems, instead of using them as a means to keep his power in place. There are now great expectations for Prime Minister Hailemariam, basically automatically elected as the Ethiopian People’s Revultionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) holds the majority in the Parliament. In the meantime, the Ethiopia Satellite Television and Abebe Gellaw have and will continue to do its best to deliver the truth to Ethiopians back home and around the world.