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Nevadan at Work: Ethiopian finds freedom on airwaves of Las Vegas

When Ethiopian police called in Habtamu Assefa Seme to give fingerprints seven years ago, he took the hint.

"In my country, the highest criminals have to give fingerprints," Seme said. "They prepared fabricated charges and we knew what was coming."

This came against a background of civil unrest after claims the ruling party had stolen elections. Nearly 200 people were killed and more than a dozen reporters arrested after protesting the results.

As a reporter with an independent newspaper and a leader of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, Seme knew his future likely included lengthy jail time and beatings.

He posted bail after a few hours of detention in October 2005 and departed for Egypt two months later. He eventually gained refugee status, opening the way for him and his wife, Merkeb, to start over in Las Vegas five years ago.

His new life includes the 2009 launch of Hiber Ethiopian Radio, his Amharic-language program that airs Sunday evenings on KRLV-AM (1340). Seme is not only the on-air voice but buys the air time, picks the programming, a mix of call-ins by listeners and reports on anything from Ethiopian politics to Nevada mortgage laws. He also works the graveyard shift as a utility porter for Wynn Resorts Ltd.

"In my country, I have no right to express freedom of speech," he said "Here in American I can. Now I exercise my right and no one beats me, no one puts me in jail. That is a big difference."

His audience is the thousands of Ethiopians working as taxi and limousine drivers and in restaurants or back-of-the-house functions at Las Vegas resorts.

Although he still refers to Ethiopia as "my country," he said he has started his U.S. citizenship application, especially since his two children were born in Las Vegas, making them American citizens.

Going back is not an option for Seme. In a 2006 report, Julia Crawford, the Africa program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote, "After Mr. Assefa (Ethiopians often go by middle instead of last names) arrived in Egypt, Ethiopian security agents visited his family members and demanded to know of Mr. Assefa’s whereabouts, threatening further reprisals. In light of this and other factors, I believe that Mr. Assefa faces a severe threat to his security if he returns to Ethiopia."

Question: What is Hiber Ethiopian Radio?

Answer: We provide up-to-date information about our country. We report human rights violations, current political news. Sometimes we raise different issues about here as well, like mortgage problems, cab driver rates. Sometimes we talk about health, like swine flu. We invite doctors who can tell people how to take preventive action. Sometimes we raise issue about Vegas or a national level, but our true focus is on Ethiopian community life. What is going on this week in the Vegas Ethiopian community, what is going on in Ethiopia.

Question: What does Hiber mean?

Answer: Hiber means a combination of cultures that look like one. I gave that name to my show to represent the different ethnic groups and different languages that Ethiopia has but stands as one nation.

Question: The show recently expanded from 60 to 90 minutes. What propelled that?

Answer: The demand was there. Last week, we asked listeners how they felt about the late prime minister (his death was announced in August). The government showed it like North Korea. All the people were going out and crying. So we ask people to call whether he is good or not. Some call him murderer or butcher.

My time was very limited, with some taken up by commercials. I do news reporting. My partner, he lives in London and sends me some reports. Another lives in Australia and sends me reports also. So, because of the demand from listeners, I increased my time.

Question: As chief producer, do you also sell the ads?

Answer: Yes. We sell enough ads to cover our air time and a little bit of stationery and phone costs. But I still work as a utility porter because I can’t cover all the bills. We hope in the near future to cover all production costs.

Question: Do your advertisers come from the small Ethiopian businesses that have sprung up in Las Vegas?

Answer: Small businesses, they don’t think the advertisements help them. So I try to reach other businesses also. Most of my businesses are cab drivers and limo drivers. My sponsors are like Deja Vu showgirls and Sapphire for one time to try to get the drivers to go there. Small businesses say they have only products for Ethiopians, so (customers) have to come to them.

Question: You started the show two years after arriving in Las Vegas. How did you get it going?

Answer: I want to serve my people as a journalist. I wanted to make a dialogue. Over there, there is no dialogue. With 80 million people, there is no free press at this time. There is no free media. One TV station, one radio station, one newspaper run by the government. The papers that try to exercise independence are banned. The journalists are exiled.

When I came over here, I had the big ambition to really exercise my freedom of speech on many different issues. Sometimes people sign an interest-only mortgage and don’t know what it means. Sometimes, people make mistakes on their credit. So I get scholars, professionals to explain this.

Another person had a show for Ethiopians and I tried to show him my way, the professional way. When I came over here, I tried to decide if I should start a print media or radio. I went to Clark County Business Center and got a business permit. I had plans to start a newspaper. But when I looked at the printing costs, it’s very expensive. So, if I buy airtime, I can cover more of the costs. But the first two years, I paid a lot on my own.

Question: Do you want to make this a full-time show?

Answer: I wish, but I can’t because I don’t have enough sponsors. My long, long, long-range ambition is to have full-time, every day a one-hour show.

Question: How long will that take?

Answer: That depends on sponsors. If I get sponsors, I can do it tomorrow.

Question: Why have so many Ethiopians settled in Las Vegas?

Answer: Most people come from different states. Some move from Los Angeles, some move from Arizona, from Washington, D.C. I came directly here from Ethiopia. Some people told me it was a state with a lot of work. You drive a car, you make more money than other states. You work in a restaurant, you make more money. One person comes and they invite friends or family from elsewhere. Now, this community has greatly increased.

Question: If you are trying to become a U.S. citizen, it sounds as if you are not really an exile anymore.

Answer: I don’t want to go back to Ethiopia, even to visit, until the country is free. This is my country. I freely speak. I freely exercise my democratic rights. God bless America, really from my heart.

When I was a refugee, nobody would help me. The United States recognized me as a refugee and allowed me to come over here. Still, I have an ambition that my people realize their freedom.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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