Gov't licenses first two private radio stations

Residents of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, heard their first independent radio broadcast on Tuesday morning, after authorities issued licences to the East African nation's first two privately owned radio stations.

The proprietor of Zami Public Connections, Mimi Sebhatu, had been waiting for her broadcast licence for four years. The first programme she aired was a debate among representatives from the opposition. Sebhatu said that broadened access to information through radio would expedite Ethiopia's democratisation process. "It will have a big impact as a way to create diversified opinions," said the former Voice of America journalist. "Radio in Ethiopia is very strong, as more people are listening than reading in this country. That's why there has been some reluctance [to open up the air waves] and fears on the side of the government."

The two stations - Zami Public Connections and Tinsae Fine Arts - will broadcast to Addis Ababa on FM. They were selected from a pool of 12 applicants in February. The licenses were issued on the basis of the stations' financial status and programme content, according to Sissay Melese, spokesman for the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority (EBA). Television broadcasting in Ethiopia still remains a state-run entity.

"These stations will have to be operational within the next 12 months if they don't want to lose their licence," said Sissay. "Every broadcaster has the right to cover all the news in a country as far as it doesn't contribute to create violence, and as long as they abide by the law of the country." He warned that legal action would be taken against the stations if they contravened regulations.

"In a way, it is too little, too late," said an Ethiopian independent journalist who asked not to be named. "When the regime changed in 1991, everybody was expecting that radio and television would be privatised. But 15 years later, we only have two private radio stations, and they will only cover Addis Abba, while the rest of the country will be left out."