Wake up, artists – an interview with Henok Mebratu

Henok Mebratu has a bird’s eye-view of the Ethiopian film industry. He is a film director and a producer with five feature films, over 20 documentary pieces and a few TV shows under his belt. He was selected as Emerging Talent at Cannes Festival in 2012 and discussed Ethiopia’s emerging film industry at Berlinale Africa Hub in 2019. At Action Media, he specializes in providing full production support to foreign companies entering Ethiopia and Africa. Visa processing, film permit, customs clearance for production equipment, travel arrangements, casting, location scouting, and editing are only a small part of the services he offers. His interest extends far beyond the current state of filmmaking – Mebratu’s eyes are firmly set on the future of expressions in his native country on and off screen. It is no surprise, then, that the issue of artistic freedom is one close to his heart. On the occasion of the 26th edition of the World Press Freedom Day celebrated in Addis Ababa he answered five questions that give us a glimpse on what it means to be an artist in Ethiopia today, and how to prepare for tomorrow.


What is an encouraging trend that you see in the Ethiopian film industry in terms of artistic freedom and diversity of contents?

I feel that we are in a better position in my lifetime due to the following reasons. Five years ago, we had just three TV channels while we now have more than 15 private channels hosting debates and different views. TV channels that were jammed previously have now opened their headquarters in Addis Ababa. Artists are getting key positions in art institutions, whereas only cadres used to be appointed in the previous government. We now have relatively reliable and uncensored internet access. Film censorship at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has been waived.


What is a major obstacle in expanding artistic freedom in Ethiopia in 2019?

The instability of peace (especially outside of Addis), fake news on social media, extremism and lack of rule of law have become threats to artistic freedom. Most people are not aware of the responsibilities that come along with freedom. Fake news is growing and there is no control mechanism in place. It is tricky for social media platforms such as Facebook to track them down as most posts are in local languages such as Amharic and Oromiffa, and Facebook has very little knowledge of them. 15 years ago, there was not a single mobile phone in the country. Now we have more than 65 million! The big challenge is, we are not educating our society as fast as the technology grows. When there is a security threat, the government immediately shuts down the internet as they think it’s the only way to control violence; which in turn endangers freedom of expression. There are also very credible rumors that the government is still blocking opposing extremists.


What is an artistic freedom initiative in neighboring countries that Ethiopia can learn from?

I’m not aware of artistic freedom initiatives happening in neighboring countries. I would love to learn about this if it exists.


How has the access to Internet influenced artistic freedom in Ethiopia?

Before the transition we had just a year ago, artists were not exercising their freedom on the Internet as they could easily be identified by the government and thought they would go to jail. They mostly self-censored themselves. Most people were using fake social media accounts to say whatever they wanted to say.


After the transition, we are seeing poems, articles and other art forms put out boldly. But the number is still not so big since most artists in the country tend to be traditional. Due to the Internet, specifically social media, the country is facing a unique challenge where fake news has become a source of ethnic conflict.


If you were to choose one word to describe the state of artistic freedom in Ethiopia today, it would be...

If I were to choose one word to describe the state of artistic freedom in Ethiopia today, it would be INFANT because artists have not yet woken up from their traumas in the near past and they are still self-censoring themselves.

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