Currently, news that Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) is planning to launch its programs in Afaan Oromo is circulating on social media. The announcement by the U.S. based channel came five years after its debut.
The satellite station has so far produced and transmitted its programs in Amharic although it sometimes airs in English as well. For a few weeks, it also started transmission of taped video of the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM). I’m not sure what happened to it after the movement’s leader, Ato Molla Asgedom, abandoned his party and fled to Ethiopia.
The news prompted hot discussions among some Oromos on social media. While some have welcome it as a good gesture on the part of ESAT, others are seeing the move as a threat only aimed at dividing and weakening the Oromo struggle for self-determination. My main goal in this piece is, therefore, to answer the following two questions: 1) Why did ESAT decide to launch Afan Oromo program now? 2) What impact will it have on the Oromo struggle?
Why did ESAT decide to launch Afaan Oromo program?
The general conceptualization of free media as a “voice for the voiceless” is cliché now. In democratic country, it is even referred to as a fourth branch of government. Media provides information to the people. It exposes corruption and other government mismanagement on behalf of the people. In Habermasian ideal conception, media reflects people interest. The conceptualization of media as being the voice of the voiceless is what the media owners claim it to be. This definition is given by people who like to give media a positive meaning. Moreover, media is supposed to provide information which is considered the right of citizens as indicated in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
On the other hand, media is also considered an instrument of oppressive regimes in authoritarian countries. Even in democracies, it is characterized as a tool that advances the values and interests of the elites. According to Lewis Althuser and Antonio Gramcsi, media along with school, church, education, and other institutions, advances the hegemony of the ruling elites.
So, in order to answer the question, why ESAT decided to launch Afaan Oromo program, it is important to look at what ESAT stands for. ESAT is managed and run by people who claim to fight for democracy. ESAT and people who work for it are not only members of a political party, some of them are even higher party leaders. It works to keep the unity of Ethiopia.
These people oppose the current regime in Ethiopia like everybody else. But here is the difference between them and the Oromos: While Oromos oppose the regime due to lack of democracy and rule of law, the people who run ESAT oppose the current federal system. While the Oromos see the federal system with all its limitation as a gain as a result of the blood of thousands of people over many years, people who run ESAT and their supporters see it as an artificial balkanization aimed at dividing the “one” Ethiopian people. ESAT is run by people who don’t recognize even the basic right of the Oromo people. Berhanu Nega, when asked for his opinion about OPDO\’s decision to move back Oromia’s capital from Adama to Addis Ababa, what came to his mind was not about the right of the Oromo people, the members of Maccaa and Tuulamaa Organization or Addis Ababa University students who were incarcerated, beaten, and tortured for their opposition to the plan to move the capital city from Finfinne to Adama in the first place. It was the tax he would collect from Oromos who move back to Addis Ababa, the city which he would run as mayor. Generally, ESAT is run by people who have interests that clearly contradict with the interests and rights of the Oromo people. In other words, ESAT works to promote the interests of its owners which is to create unitary Ethiopia that will get rid of the “the rights and interests of nations and nationalities thing.”
Why in Afaan Oromo?
The first reason is the recognition on the part of ESAT management that more than any time in history, Oromo people have become a political force to be reckoned with. The Oromos have become active participants in politics. If there is ever a democracy, it has become crystal clear that no party in Ethiopia can come to power without getting the vote of the Oromo. This requires the parties to take into account their rights and interests.
Second, the recent movement by qeerroo in Oromia and abroad has managed to attract the attention of not only Ethiopian people, but also that of the international community. It has managed to get news coverage of almost all known international media, big countries such as the United States, and multinational institutions such as European Union and United Nations. Without any exaggeration, the name Oromo and Oromia are now known more than many countries in the world.
So, ESAT is left only with two options: to shape the outcome of the Oromo movement, or to continue with its hitherto policy of undermining it. Apparently, it has chosen the first option—to launch Afaan Oromo program in order to shape their perception about politics through media. Whether they will transmit programs that take into account the rights and interests of the Oromo or they will simply translate their Amharic programs into Afan Oromo is yet to be seen. In both ways they will not succeed. If they choose the first way, that would be costly but with no significant impact. If they choose the second, they will not succeed.
Other main reason ESAT management has decided to launch Afaan Oromo program is to rally the Oromo people behind its main objective: building one Ethiopia ruled by “true Ethiopiawi.” The launch of OMN two years ago and its relative success in rallying Oromos behind Oromummaa has even given them a sense of urgency. They must also have observed that the strong financial support OMN managed to get from Oromo people all over the world.
ESAT management must have thought that the only way it can rally Oromos behind its vision of building one Ethiopia is by snatching Oromo audiences from OMN and other media outlets. They assume that this will help them into ways. First snatching Oromo audience from OMN and other media will weaken their struggle for self-determination. And second, by getting more Oromo audience, it will also be able to expand its financial base.
Will ESAT succeed?
Whether or not ESAT will succeed depends on the impact the programs will have on the minds of the Oromo people. Yes, overall there is agreement among media scholars that media contents have cognitive, affective, and behavioral impact on media consumers. However, I argue that ESAT has a very slim chance of succeeding in influencing the perceptions and behaviors of the Oromos. Here is why:
First, the old assumption that media has direct and immediate influence on perceptions and behaviors of people has been disproved by many studies. This so-called hypodermic or magic-bullet model of media effect doesn’t apply because: 1) audience is active, and 2) different social, cultural, and psychological variables moderate the impact of media.
Second, audiences selectively expose themselves to media. According the theory of selective exposure, consumers of media content expose themselves to information which reinforces their pre-existing attitudes and values. That is, people accept opinion that sync with their dispositions and reject opinions that contradict with their pre-held opinions. So, to see whether ESAT will have any impact on Oromos, it is important to look at what Oromos opinions are on Oromummaa and self-determination.
There is no difference on Oromummmaa and self-determination among Oromos in general. Oromos of all walks of life believe that both the current and past regimes are bad. They believe that the unitary nationalism that has been tried for over a century didn’t work, and have no reason to believe it will in the future. They, as many Ethiopian nations and nationalities do, also believe that they were oppressed because of their identity, and so identity-based political struggle is a solution. Less than independence, all Oromos believe that the current federal structure is better but not enough because of lack of democracy. ESAT and its management, on the other hand, believe that at the core of the problem in Ethiopian politics is ethnic and linguistic-based federalism which should be dismantled by any means.
So, will ESAT succeed? The answer is no because ESAT will not produce programs that will advance the interests and rights of the Oromos I listed in preceding paragraphs. As I explained, Oromos expose themselves to information that reinforces their preexisting attitudes and reject information and opinions that contradicts with what they favor. It is not wonder that in the United States, conservatives rely on conservative media for political news while liberals depend on liberal media news related to politics.