A Sharp Eye On Ethiopia
N.Va. Network to Provide Outlet for Views Suppressed in Homeland
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007; Page B01
After three decades as a prominent reporter in Ethiopia, the arrests and jailings -- punishment for articles deemed critical of the government -- became too much for Mulugeta Lule. He fled his country and now works for a District parking company.
Tamagne Beyene was a famed entertainer who toured Ethiopia's stages and arenas. But he gave up that life for refuge in Alexandria after his public jokes about the government led to jail time and police beatings.
Nebiyu Eyassu published articles in his Addis Ababa magazine censuring government policies and was rewarded with criminal charges of incitement. Today, he oversees airport buses in Northern Virginia, where his closest tie to the profession he abandoned a decade ago is through the fictional journalist in a novel he is writing.
Now these men and other political exiles whose words were stifled in Ethiopia are reclaiming their voices here. In an unmarked warehouse off a gritty Alexandria street, they are creating a medium to reach out to their homeland: a 24-hour, independent television network about Ethiopia and its people.
By March 1, they hope to speak again to the more than 100,000 Ethiopian expatriates living in North America -- via satellite broadcasts of news and political analysis, educational programs and entertainment recorded mostly in Amharic. Eventually, they say, the Ethiopian Television Network, produced from the safety of a studio half a world away, will extend into Ethiopian homes.
"Land of opportunity," Beyene, 42, said of America while standing in the studio's production room, where he has recorded several episodes of a Jay Leno-style talk show for ETN. "You can say what you want to say and no prison."
For ETN reporters and hosts, many of whom have been granted political asylum, the network represents a professional renaissance and the chance to report freely on Ethiopian issues, even if from afar.
Success or failure, the station will be a milestone for U.S.-based Ethiopians, who had to turn to the Internet, radio or government-run satellite television for Amharic-language news about their country's recent invasion of Somalia. And it is a sign of the vitality of the Washington region's Ethiopian population, the nation's largest.
One recent evening, several staff members showed off the studio. In one dim editing room, the network's logo -- in the red, yellow and green of the Ethiopian flag -- bounced around computer monitors.
Under the bright lights of the production studio, where folding chairs were lined up for the audience, Beyene described a satirical 2005 DVD he made. In it, he pretended to interview Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, then spliced in comments Zenawi had made in real interviews. In one of his favorite parts, Beyene asks Meles how he rules his country. Meles' response: By instinct.
Beyene said he read on the Internet that because of the DVD, which had been distributed in Ethiopia, he was charged in absentia with treason and genocide.
" That is the funny part!" said Beyene, an animated man with graying hair and glinting eyes.
The Ethiopian Embassy did not respond to several requests for comment.
Beyene moved to the United States in 1996. Bitter that his work as a comedian and emcee brought him trouble, he cast it aside and studied computers. Eventually, he took to the stage again and now performs for Ethiopian expatriates in the United States and abroad. But those are weekend gigs, and Beyene said he has sometimes felt depressed during off hours, when his thoughts turn to the stars who have taken his place in his homeland.
"I have just an opinion," he said. "So why [is] anybody mad at me?"
In a bare-walled office down the hall sat Lule, 65, who wears an Ethiopian flag pin on his lapel and is ETN's new chief executive. He worked his way up through several media outlets before becoming founder and editor of the popular newspaper Tobia in the 1990s. Eventually, he said, state harassment -- 16 criminal charges and three imprisonments, he said -- chased him away. He left in 1996.
Here, he has continued to write occasionallyfor Ethiopian papers. His livelihood, though, has come from a job in operations for a parking company.
"I miss it," he said of his journalism career.
While Ethiopia, a staunch U.S. ally, allows private media, international human rights organizations say independent journalists face state intrusion and intimidation. Hundreds of opposition leaders, social activists and journalists have been jailed. Newspapers have been shut down. That repression has sent many journalists and performers abroad -- several to the Washington area. Census data say 22,000 Ethiopian immigrants live in the region, but some community leaders believe it is home to more than 100,000. And so Sosinna Tesfa looked no further to build the ETN roster.
Tesfa, an Alexandria tech company owner who immigrated as a child, hatched the idea for ETN early last year with two friends. They recruited other investors, Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans who mortgaged their homes and took loans to raise $500,000 in startup funds. And to give the network a slick and professional feel, they decided seasoned journalists and artists would run the show.
Tesfa first approached Lule, whom she calls "our Walter Cronkite."
Initially, he was skeptical. But when he learned that they had a space and equipment, he signed on.
"I shared their dream," Lule said.
He helped recruit other exiles, including Dereje Desta, the publisher of a District-based newspaper, Ze Ethiopia, and Genet Metike Alemu. Alemu freelances for Voice of America and makes a living as a receptionist at Providence Hospital, a job she cheerfully says has taught her skills -- filing, faxing -- and kept her verbal skills up to snuff.
"Of course, it is different from journalism," she said.
Perhaps no one feels more reborn through ETN than Eyassu, who spent 25 years as an editor and writer for various media in Ethiopia. He tried his hand as a foreign correspondent when he arrived in Northern Virginia in 1994, but it paid poorly. When ETN came calling, he was so overjoyed that he offered to work for free.
"It's hard to leave a career behind, let alone to bus driving," said Eyassu, 59, a ground transportation supervisor at Dulles International Airport. He has recently taped four episodes as host of an ETN political debate show.
The ETN crew emphasizes often that the network will be no mouthpiece -- not for the opposition, not for the state, not for anything but the truth.
Yet disdain for the Ethiopian government is evident in the studio. Lule refers to Meles as "a despot in the desert."
Abdul Kamus, an Ethiopia native who is executive director of the African Resource Center in the District, said America's fast-growing Ethiopian community needs quality media to help it adjust. But he is skeptical that a television network run by exiles can be objective.
"People will be free to speak their mind, yes, of course . . . Will they be neutral? I doubt it," Kamus said. "The majority [of Ethiopians] here would like to hear negative aspects of Ethiopian politics. They don't want to hear anything positive about the government."
Lule rejected Kamus's prediction, insisting that the network will be a "marketplace of ideas." Beyene, for one, is brimming with them. After years of admiring late-night hosts David Letterman and Bill Maher as they take swipes at political leaders, Beyene is giddy about having an opportunity to do the same.
"When you are here, your thinking is much broader. Now I am thinking wide," Beyene said. "I wish I got this chance to perform this in Ethiopia."