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A year of three new BBC services for Ethiopia and Eritrea

Rachael Akidi Okwir

Head of East Africa, BBC World Service

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Families reuniting after two decades torn apart by the unresolved border conflict

Rachael Akidi Okwir, BBC World Service Head of East Africa, today (18 September) celebrates the first anniversary of the launch of three new UK Government-funded language services for Ethiopia and Eritrea, and looks at what the future holds.

I’m not sure any of us had interviewed nearly 80 candidates in one recruitment exercise before.

It was March 2017. For two weeks, together with the then Horn of Africa editorial lead Will Ross and BBC Africa Multimedia news editor Lucy Walker, we sat through nearly 80 interviews in a tiny room in the British Council offices in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Within a couple of months the new recruits had embarked on a new journey in the BBC East Africa bureau. The move not only changed their lives, but also the media landscape in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The BBC News Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrinya services were aiming to reach an audience that had for years been torn between two extreme choices: state-controlled media from both Ethiopia and Eritrea, and opposition platforms created by exiles based in the diaspora.

Forcing government action

The three language services launched their websites on 18 September 2017 and within months were already making waves in the target countries.

One of the most resonant pieces was by BBC News Afaan Oromo, about Oddo Shakiso, one of the mineral rich districts in south western Ethiopia. The piece by reporter Habtamu Tibebu investigated the country’s biggest gold mining company MIDROC.

Communities in the area had alleged that some of the mining activities were having not only dangerous effects on the environment but also on people’s lives. They claimed the congenital birth defects present in the community could be linked to the activities of the mines.

Dambali Hexo's daughter was born with a disability

For years, environmentalists along with the communities had campaigned and protested the activities of the company - with little or no response from the authorities.

Following the report, the government revoked the company's mining licence, and said it needed to investigate the alleged adverse effects the company’s activities were having on the communities and environment.

The report had brought the issue to a wider audience, and was picked up by several local and international media organisations.

Seismic shift in the political landscape

The three services launched during a very difficult time for Ethiopia. And nobody predicted that they were about to witness numerous historic events.

The Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned suddenly last February, following weeks of protests by disaffected groups. A state of emergency was imposed and for some weeks it appeared the political environment was going to get worse and even more unpredictable.

Then a new Prime Minister was appointed. At just 41, Abiy Ahmed has overhauled the region.

He announced that Ethiopia would be complying with a 2000 border agreement that gave a disputed strip of land to Eritrea. The two countries had fought a bitter war for nearly 20 years, and had never fully resolved the dispute after successive Ethiopian governments refused to honour the agreement.

The announcement paved the way for major changes, including a restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Last week the common border was officially reopened and both sides started withdrawing troops from the area; marking an official end to the war.

The Tigrinya service reporter Girmay Gerbu was the only BBC journalist to witness this historic event. His material was used across BBC output. Previously the Amharic service reporter Kalkidan Yibeltal had been one of the few journalists, together with the bilingual reporter Emmanuel Igunza, on the first historic flight between the two countries.

With one historic announcement after another - sometimes on the same day - it has been quite a challenge keeping up with the stories and even determining what to prioritise.

Good news for the media

The PM announced sweeping reforms that included lifting restrictions on the media. Nearly 200 websites and blogs that had been blocked under previous governments were allowed to operate.

Journalists and opposition politicians who had fled the country have since been allowed to return.

The political and media landscape is unrecognisable from a year ago when we launched.

The Eritrean authorities who were suspicious about the launch of the Tigrinya service have since allowed some BBC reporters briefly into the country.

We hope we can one day have a full BBC presence in Eritrea to cover stories in an authentic and original way.

As both countries implement momentous reforms, we hope the three services will continue to record these moments of history, while bringing stories from a previously under-reported region to the rest of the world.

The BBC World Service languages expansion comes thanks to a funding boost of £289m from the UK Government.

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