Remaking Amharic Journalism

In another month, Fasil Legesse and his business partner Amnon Rubinstein will fly to Ethiopia. This is not their first visit and certainly will not be their last, but it will surely be a special visit.

Their hosts will take them to Ethiopia's first communications school, which they founded at the behest of the local government. Legesse and Rubinstein say that for the first three years at least, the staff will be Israeli.

The two are also behind the cable-satellite Israeli-Ethiopian television channel IETV, considered a success by virtue of its very existence for the past two years. The channel's advertising campaigns are the talk of the town among community members, the channel's reporters and announcers are now famous, and the entrepreneurs are considered experts even in Ethiopia.

So why is the channel having difficulty keeping its head above water?

The channel's second-floor office in Tel Aviv would be best described as "modest": There are a few rooms for editing, a few austere offices and a kitchenette. Most of the team is out filming around the country, and only a handful of employees are there.

However, that modest channel has impressive viewership numbers among its target audience: Of the 18,000 Ethiopian-Israeli families who have either cable or satellite TV, 15,000 subscribe to the channel.

It broadcasts 16 hours a day, mostly live broadcasts from Ethiopian TV. However, 30 percent of the broadcasts are produced in Israel and they are the ones that draw the most praise. They include programs on current events, business, interviews, music, entertainment and Israeli documentary films dubbed in Amharic.

"The Ethiopian immigrant community is considered a distressed population that does not have enough money for even the basic TV package," Legesse says. "When we were negotiating with the cable and satellite companies, no one believed anyone would subscribe to the channel."

So how do you explain the channel's success?

"Many of the Ethiopian immigrants don't know how to read or write, and they have no other means of getting information. The Russian-speaking immigrants can watch an Israeli station or five stations from abroad. The Ethiopian immigrants never had anything like that. I produced a program that aired on Educational Television for 10 years on Friday afternoons, and many community members watched it."

The new channel launched only after a fight. Even Legesse and Rubinstein's attorney did not believe they stood a chance. Legesse says that in his preliminary meetings with cable company representatives, his plans elicited a smile.

"Friends told me to be careful and not to get involved with this channel because the risk was too great," he says.

Why did you start it?

Rubinstein: "Not for financial reasons. We believed a channel of this kind was needed, and that the community needed to be advanced. The channel is a social revolution for Ethiopian immigrants. A great many things have happened because of it."

"From the start, we knew the channel would not earn millions," Legesse says. "Our community is small but we believe in the project's social aspect, and therefore we employ mainly communications graduates from the Ethiopian community who live in the periphery and don't have a chance of breaking into the industry. Our employees come from Ashdod and Be'er Sheva and after a while, they move up in the communications field. The Channel 2 reporter Brahno Taganya began here, for example."

These employees can be found throughout the country in what Legesse calls "the Ethiopian ghettoes." That is where they shoot most of the material for the Friday night news programs, which include news reports, business and a long feature. With its current annual budget of NIS 4 million, the channel cannot produce a daily news broadcast.

And if something major happens?

Legesse: "We go there and shoot, that's for sure."

Legesse was one of the founders of the Amharic-language broadcast at Israel Radio; he also set up a private production company, Fasil Dan. Rubinstein is a veteran director and filmmaker, and is the channel's deputy director and chief contents manager. The two met when they were producing a series of documentary films about Ethiopia.

The budget is their channel's Achilles heel. Despite their impressive viewership numbers, the channel has to wage a day-to-day struggle for its existence.

"We are a modest channel," Legesse says, "and less than 30 percent of our budget comes from subscriptions. That number apparently will not increase much."

So where does the budget come from?

"We try to get money from sponsors and government ministries, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Joint and the Jewish Agency. When they believe in us and give us a bigger budget, we'll be able to do more. What we broadcast now is not enough. The Meimad Television Studios support us, but we should broadcast news every day and that is expensive. We produce the weekly news program without sponsors. Recently we have been cooperating with the Jewish Ntional Fund and we have a business spot in the news program with Bank Hapoalim. During the war [in Gaza], we broadcast news every day without assistance. Our audience lives in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot, and we sent reporters out into the field every day. We need a budget to survive."

Do you have any way of knowing which broadcasts have high rating?

Rubinstein: "Everything we do sparks interest in the Ethiopian community and arouses debate, on the radio for example."

Legesse: "We produced a program with government ministries on the status of women and domestic violence. For two weeks they discussed it on the radio and in the streets."

Are there no taboo subjects?

Legesse: "We have no taboos. We have dealt with AIDS and violence against women. Addressing these issues makes us stronger."

Rubinstein: "We are busy producing a big campaign against domestic violence, with short dramas and special programs. We deal with tough subjects in ways that suit this community and it creates a change, at least in the discourse."

Legesse: "Our senior reporter, Hannah Metaka, is perhaps the most influential personality in the Ethiopian immigrant community. We believe that people who work at the station should be role models, because a child who lives in the ghettoes of Hadera, Afula or Rehovot does not have anywhere else to look. His environment doesn't say to him, 'When you are big, you can be ...' He sees us and knows that if he tries, he will succeed."