On March 15, 1965, Deutsche Welle's first Amharic radio program for Ethiopia went on the air. Ever since, the Amharic service has accompanied millions of listeners through Ethiopia's turbulent history.
In retrospect, the first broadcast on March 15, 1965, appeared to underpin the state in much the same manner that the protocol at Emperor Haile Selassie's court did. Even before Deutsche Welle's new Amharic service was to be introduced officially, the ambassador of the Ethiopian empire was given the opportunity to address shortwave radio listeners on the Horn of Africa. The start of the service would bring a "ray of light" to Ethiopia, he announced.
It did not take long before the first letter from a listener reached the broadcasting house. Because it was located in Cologne at the time, Ethiopians also refer to DW as "Radio Cologne" to this day. "Many greetings and many thanks for the Amharic program. Ever since you have begun broadcasting, I always listen in. I hope you have even more air time in the future," Abdul Mamna Hassan wrote.
The first broadcast was only 15 minutes long, whereas today DW broadcasts in Amharic for a full hour seven days a week.
The emperor's charm
But why in the world was Amharic added to DW's existing African language services, Kiswahili and Hausa? Had the emperor's charm left such a lasting impression when he visited Bonn in 1954 - the first visit by a foreign head of state to the young Federal Republic of Germany?
"Ethiopia was selected because of the international standing of the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and the role Ethiopia played in the Pan-African way," said Frank Lemke, who headed the Amharic desk for many years. "In 1963 the African Union was founded, and Ethiopia offered to be the headquarters." The German government, whose consent was needed to adopt Amharic as a DW broadcasting language, was "quite pleased" with the idea, Lemke recounted. And so the first program was broadcast from Germany on shortwave.
A thirst for truth
DW Amharic soon became a hit in Ethiopia, and the local time of the broadcasts was popularly referred to as the "DW hour." One reader wrote, " we in Ethiopia are like fish without gills. It was DW Amharic that gave us gills to breathe with." And this has been the general thrust of countless listeners' letters which reach the Amharic desk.
In the mid-70s corruption and famines ushered in the end of Emperor Haile Selassie's rule. The dark years of the so-called Derg regime under Mengistu Haile Mariam followed, before a changing of the guard on the Horn of Africa in the wake of the collapse of communist systems in Europe at the end of the 80s. With Meles Zenawi in power in Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki in power in Eritrea, there seemed to be cause for new hope. Covering everything was DW's Amharic service, with up to seven correspondents, who transferred their reports to Germany daily via the telephone and later the Internet.
But as the former freedom fighters Zenawi and Afewerki became increasingly authoritarian, the attacks on Germany's external broadcaster became more frequent. It's Amharic service was reporting on human rights violations and restrictions imposed on civil society and the media.
The shortwave broadcasts have often been jammed by using transmitters to override the signal. China was named as a supplier of the equipment. "If the jamming persists, we Ethiopians suffer," a listener wrote recently.
Correspondents had their accreditation revoked. Two of them fled to Europe and requested asylum there. Lately, rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been increasingly documenting Internet censorship by the Ethiopian government. "Deutsche Welle plays a really key and important role in providing information to Ethiopia, a country where there is not a lot of access to free and accurate information," said HRW Africa researcher Felix Horne.
Ethiopia: a radio market with social interaction
Of the foreign broadcasting services, DW Amharic has the most listeners in Ethiopia. 250,000 Facebook fans - about one third of all Facebook users in a country of 90 million people - follow the programs and engage in discussions with the editors in Bonn in Facebook chats.
"For the time being, Ethiopia is definitely still a radio market," says DW's editor-in-chief, Alexander Kudascheff. On a trip to Washington, which has a large Ethiopian expatriate community, he experienced that even Ethiopian taxi drivers in the US listened to DW's Amharic program, albeit on their smartphones. "All in all, we will surely have to position ourselves in a way that makes us accessible to people in Ethiopia via mobile devices and in social networks as well."
Anniversary greetings ahead of a dangerous passage to Europe
Both longtime and new listeners have been congratulating the Ethiopian service as it reaches a new milestone. A particularly touching message comes from Solomon, an Ethiopian presently in Libya. Five years ago, he and his wife set out for Europe. But the two have since been caught up in the turmoil in northern Africa. In spite of his precarious situation, Solomon crafted an anniversary greeting, which he conveyed on his cell phone: "Deutsche Welle – committed to the truth and the fight against discrimination – balanced and fair. For this reason, we are ear witnesses to 50 years in the service of truth."
In two weeks, Solomon said over the phone, he and his wife want to board a boat headed for Italy. He said he hopes he will survive the odyssey - and pay DW in Bonn a visit soon.