x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Kenyan TV series starts row with Ethiopia

A television documentary has sparked a minor diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia, two neighbouring east African powerhouses.

Fighters from the Oromo Liberation Front return to their training camp in southern Ethiopia near the border town of Moyale in southern Ethiopia last month.
Fighters from the Oromo Liberation Front return to their training camp in southern Ethiopia near the border town of Moyale in southern Ethiopia last month.

NAIROBI // A television documentary has sparked a minor diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia, two neighbouring east African powerhouses. The Ethiopian government last week launched an effort to block a Kenyan television station from airing a four-part documentary on the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group that has fought a low-level insurgency in southern Ethiopia for more than 30 years. Kenya's ambassador to Ethiopia was summoned to the Ethiopian foreign ministry for questioning in the documentary dispute. The private station NTV on Thursday and Friday aired the first two parts of Inside Rebel Territory, an investigative series about the shadowy OLF. The third part of the series aired yesterday and the last part was scheduled to air today. The series was available on You Tube, a video-sharing website, and on Ethiopian websites. In a letter to the Nation Media Group, which owns NTV, Disasa Dirribsa, the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, denounced the OLF and questioned the television station's political motivation in airing the story, according to the Daily Nation newspaper, which is also owned by the Nation Media Group. "The OLF has been totally rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Oromo population, who are exercising and enjoying their democratic rights," Mr Dirribsa wrote in the letter, part of which was published in the Daily Nation. Airing the programme amounts to a "conspiracy to speak for these terrorist elements in our sub-region, leading us to question NTV's covert or overt political agenda," he wrote. The Kenyan foreign ministry backed the appeal to cancel the series, arguing that Kenya's national interests were at stake in the diplomatic standoff, according to Linus Kaikai, the managing editor of NTV. This may be a signal that Kenya wants to quickly defuse tensions with its powerful northern neighbour. "There was a lot of pressure from the Ethiopian government and the Kenyan foreign ministry," Mr Kaikai said in an interview. "We decided to air it because we have no doubts about the authenticity of our story. The diplomatic interests of the country aren't threatened by the story." Mr Kaikai said the station had not faced a backlash from the government for airing the first part of the series. Kenya's press is ranked as average among African countries and has "noticeable problems" including self-censorship, according to Reporters Without Borders, a free press watchdog. The press in Ethiopia is more restricted and much of the media there is state-owned. For NTV's four 30-minute -episodes on the OLF, a Kenyan reporter and cameraman crossed into rebel territory in Ethiopia on foot at night. They linked up with the fighters, a ragtag army of shaggy-haired young men, and spent five days shooting footage of OLF training exercises and ceremonies. The footage shows the rebels firing old AK47 rifles and singing and dancing around a campfire. The rebels are also seen slaughtering a camel with a large knife, drinking the blood and eating the meat raw. In the video, the fighters take turns feeding each other, a sign of solidarity among the Oromo people. Yassin Juma, the NTV correspondent, said it took the journalists three years to make contact with the OLF leadership. Journalists rarely enter OLF territory. The OLF started in 1973 as a nationalist movement for the Oromo people of southern and central Ethiopia. With more than 31 million people, the Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the country but hold limited political power. The group fought alongside troops loyal to Meles Zenawi, the current Ethiopian prime minister, and helped overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Marxist dictator, in 1991. Since then, the OLF split with Mr Zenawi and has been fighting for an Oromo homeland and fair treatment of the Oromo people. The Ethiopian government considers the OLF a terrorist group. The group maintains bases in southern Ethiopia along the -border with Kenya. The OLF has been blamed for occasional attacks across the border in northern Kenya, although there has been no OLF fighting in Kenya since 2005. Still, many Kenyans see the group as a threat to their country's -security. Though clashes are rare these days in the Oromo conflict, the OLF's official website last week claimed that the rebels killed 16 Ethiopian troops in two battles in July. Eritrea, which has been locked in a tense border dispute with Ethiopia since 1998, has been accused of supporting the OLF in order to destabilise the country. Ethiopia is also fighting ethnic Somali rebels in its eastern Ogaden desert -region. mbrown@thenational.ae