Prime Minister Meles Zenawi showed an unusual interest on the Ethiopian show business today by calling a general meeting of artists, actors, directors, writers, musicians, singers and producers. Probably for the first time in his 20 years rule, the PM appears to consider the power of art in the society’s socioeconomic and political life. Around 1500 artists attended the meeting.
It was early morning when the artists start to show up at the Arat Kilo Palace. After the Prime Minister arrived, Serawit Fikre, the President of Ethiopian Artists Association opened the meeting by speech appreciating the time and effort the PM invested for this meeting. Serawit used his unique wordings to explain how important it is for the government and artists working together towards development.
After his speech, a short play written by Serawit Fikre was presented on the stage. In the 20 minutes play, a message that artists in Ethiopia are not receiving as much as they deserve was transmitted. Serawit was also the chairman for the discussion.
Assistant Professor Hayimanot Alemu was the first speaker to pass on the message to the PM. He started his speech by remembering the EPDRP annual meeting, which for the first time included 20 artists. “We were promised at that meeting that there will be a discussion shortly with the PM. Personally I didn’t believe that this meeting will take place. I am glad this meeting happened”. Hayimanot talked about the importance of art, especially music in the development of a nation. He mentioned Mulatu Astake, who is an inspiration not only for Ethiopians but also for the whole world as well.
Tatek Tadesse, a film director, was the next speaker. He focused on the image of Ethiopia internationally. “Media created the wrong image for Ethiopia” he said. “This shows us the power of media and art. This image still follows us. The only way we can defeat this bad image is through media. Movies, music and art can and will change the image of this country. In the age of information, image sells. It attracts investment. For this we need the government to protect our rights and provide fund for the industry as it’s practiced in some countries”
Equbai Berhe then took the stage. His concern was the power of art in supporting the economy. He mentioned Nigeria from Africa as a country that gets high foreign exchange next to oil from its movie industry. He criticized the investment law saying that it does not support the artist. He also said that the copyright law has several gaps and the implementation was not effective. Euibay also mentioned the case of globalization in breaking local artists. “We cannot compete with Hollywood and Bollywood in these situations. Government must consider supporting us,” he said.
The gathered artists also claimed that courts, police, public prosecutors are not working in coordination for the rights of the artist. Many grievances were presented in the meeting: Ethiopian Awards Organization is not operating well for lack of budget, art does not have a place in the government 5 years development and transformation plan, artistic materials like camera are treated just like any commodity and taxed up to 40% and are subject for VAT, etc.
Comedian Dereje Haile also presented his case from the Ethiopian Comedian Association. As usual Dereje forwarded his question with a joke. “I went to a court the other day to follow up a case of copyright. After the court heard the case, it gave us an appointment. While I was waiting for a taxi outside, the defendant came and asked me if I wanted a ride. He was driving a Mercedes-Benz and it was clear that he bought it selling illegal copies of our work. Is the government waiting until these people gave us a ride by a helicopter”.
Photographer Aida also questioned the PM why the government is not keeping a record of the ever-changing state of the country. “When foreigners try to take pictures no body questions them, but Ethiopians are not allowed to take pictures in most places,” she said.
Actor Debesh Temesgen also said there are only 5 Theaters in Addis Ababa and three of them were built during Haileselassie and Derg regimes. “The regulation for these Theaters was made before 30 years, which makes them unsuitable for the present needs of the Theater houses. He also mentioned the lack of theaters suitable for children.”
Musician Serse Mekaeal claims that the answer for all this questions is education and awareness creation. “The curriculum seems to focus more on natural science and this is affecting the capacity of youngsters to appreciate art,” he said.
The PM finally took the stage. “This stage has to focus on our general agenda which is development and transformation to our people,” he said. “Government cannot control art or support artists, so that they will favor the government. However, the government has the obligation to do its part in facilitating situations suitable for the development of art.”
“We cannot find solutions for all your questions today. We have to prioritize. We have limited skilled man power and money. This means we have to identify things we can be effective at and we can actually afford. This in my view includes art education and awareness creation. We have to give a chance for our society to have basic knowledge of art so that it can be in a position to appreciate art. This is one of the things we can afford and can actually have a positive impact. This might be challenged by lack of skilled manpower to teach and may be it might be an expensive project. What we need to do is to use what we already have like the art school. We can use teachers we already have for this. This strategy will hopefully grow in the future. We will have a committee from you and the Ministry of Education to come up with a strategy and a curriculum and follow up its implementation.” He said.
The PM instructed the artists to organize a committee that will work with the Ministry of Education.
“The current curriculum which puts 70 percent of the students in natural science fields and 30% in social since and Art is not meant to create a gap. As we all know, we need a number of professionals in the natural sciences area. But, in social science, what matters is not the number, but the quality of individuals. “
The second issue the Prime minister focused on is the case of intellectual property rights. ‘We understand there is a problem in the law enforcement while implementing the copyrights law. I don’t have the jurisdiction to comment on the gaps you mentioned on the court. But we can find the main gaps in the law itself so that we can amend it. We can also have a strategy to engage in making the police and the public prosecutor more proactive on this case,” the PM promised.
“You said licensed traders are engaging in more illegal copyright cases. This is true. We are planning to introduce a new licensing mechanism. The previous licensing system created a gap for traders to get as many licenses as they want in the names of different people. When they got caught with one license they work with another. This is a problem for the Ethiopian business sector in general.”
The third issue was the lack of Theater house. “Let’s start with what we have,” the PM said. “We understand there is lack of infrastructures, especially in the regions. But this is something the private sector needs to consider most. It doesn’t mean that government is not concerned about the matter. However, we encourage the private sector to invest in this area since there is a wide market in that sector that is not exploited yet.”
In general the meeting sounded pre-planned. The questions were clearly pre-approved and the prime minister, as he often does in discussions, chose to talk about matters he thought more important than the specific questions by the artists. Some artists who chose anonymity told Ezega.com that the meeting did not answer their questions and those who got the chance to speak and present the questions wasted the time appreciating the PM than presenting their case. The claim involved that the speakers do not represent the majority of artists and the main questions were not forwarded or addressed.
Artist Hamelmal Abate, in the afternoon show on FM 102 radio said that the burning issues especially to the musicians were not addressed well. “The music industry is the one most affected by copyright issues and we have been pushing for this stage to happen. But our effort was hijacked today. The main questions and the reality were not presented well. It is only when the government knows the facts that it can work for a solution. We had to wait 20 years to get this chance to present our case, but we didn’t use it as we were supposed to,” she said. Hamelmal was one of the presenters mentioned in the program list but did not get the chance due to shortage of time. “I have prepared many questions and it took me long time to prepare the questions for the PM. I was disappointed when they told me time was up. I hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years to get a chance to discuss with the PM again.”