By Abebe Gellaw,
The stormy relationship between the Voice of America (VOA) and the TPLF-led Ethiopian government has recently taken a strange twist after Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom and Ambassador Girma Birru managed to sneak into the headquarters of the U.S. broadcaster at night and convened an unauthorized editorial meeting with some staff members. During the backdoor meeting, the officials of the dictatorial regime tried to dictate guidance to the broadcasters and critiqued the quality of VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia, reliable sources confirmed to this investigation.
The gathering, which was held behind the back of VOA executives, was held in the editorial meeting room of the Horn of Africa section, located at 330 Independence Avenue, Washington D.C. Strangely enough, the engagement was held out of work hours on a weekend night , Saturday, September 26th, from 7 pm to nearly 9 pm.
Organized and facilitated by VOA Amharic broadcaster Solomon Abate, along with Betre Siltan from the Tigrigna service, the bizarre meeting between the diplomats and a group of seven VOA staff members–including two technicians, is now being branded inappropriate and disturbing.
In view of the regime’s aggressive tactics to silence critical media coverage at home and abroad, such a meeting with the top officials of a tyrannical regime with a hostile agenda towards VOA has been troubling for those who felt that it violated the legally-mandated VOA Charter and Journalistic Code.
The scandalous meeting was said to be dictated by the need to build trust and cooperation between the journalists and the repressive government, which annually tops almost every list of press freedom violators. During the talks, the top TPLF emissaries availed themselves of the opportunity to exert undue influence to alter the tone and content of VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia by making pleas and veiled threats, said reliable sources who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The foreign minister, who forbid any recording of the intimate discussion, complained that giving platform to critical voices and dissidents including Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 could be tantamount to destabilizing the government. He criticized VOA for focusing on “negative” stories.
Big brother watching
After taking a few questions, the minister expressed his displeasure that the interview he gave to VOA Amharic last July was criticized on VOA by critics of government policies. He told them that such a practice was wrong and should not have happened.
In his controversial VOA interview, the TPLF minister had misrepresented that President Obama endorsed the last elections as democratic contrary to the reality. He also said that prominent dissident Andargachew Tsigie, who was kidnapped last year in Yemen and reportedly tortured in Ethiopia, was being treated well and was even allowed to admire “development” projects. He even claimed that Adargachew was given a laptop to write a book.
Both the minister and the ambassador expressed the government’s readiness to work closely with VOA and facilitate any supports and assistance the journalists may need to bring out positive stories and images, the sources said.
The officials told the gathering with seven VOA employees that VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia should focus on promoting positive progress rather than airing “negative” stories and views, a reference to sensitive issues related to human rights violations, abuse of power and corruption. After listing down some of the progress and improvements he claimed to have been made in the last few years, the foreign minister also invited the journalists to go and see the reality for themselves.
They hinted that the Ethiopian government constantly receives information about VOA’s internal activities. The foreign minister was quoted as saying that they know who does what at the section and told the VOA employees to re-examine themselves and do soul searching.
“There are rules, procedures and codes of ethics that need to be adhered to in these kinds of engagement. It was unusual for a foreign minister to come to VOA newsrooms to chair an editorial meeting with a few people at night when everyone went to bed,” says a staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source said he and a number of staffers felt disappointed with such a meeting that undercut the official channels and undermined the independence of VOA.
“If there is any need to complain about VOA programing or negotiate any deals, the officials should have followed the official procedures and channels instead of convening an editorial meeting at night with a selected group of VOA journalists, who are U.S. federal government employees,” the source noted.
“We are supposed to be independent journalists working for VOA. Why should the foreign minister or the ambassador come to VOA and dictate us how to do our jobs or give us instructions? It is not only inappropriate but also insulting to our intelligence and professional integrity,” another source added. “I strongly believe that VOA should continue its work with no fear or favor,” noted the source.
They pointed out that VOA, as an independent media outlet, has a mission of holding the powerful accountable with factual and truthful reporting. “Nobody can compromise or change the legally-mandated VOA charter and code of ethics.”
Another source indicated that the dubious meeting had the indirect effect of “big brother is watching you.” Some people are very concerned over the incident that calls for a thorough investigation to find out how and why this happened in a federal government building which was supposed to be a very safe and secure place of work.
The officials told the VOA employees that the doors of the Ethiopian Embassy were wide open to them. But a couple of the attendees are said to have already regretted attending the meeting as they claimed to have been misled to believe that the officials were available for a studio interview rather than chairing an editorial meeting.
Abebe Hailu, President of the Ethiopian-American Council expressed dismay and disbelief. “The current development in VOA is very alarming as it undermines the integrity of VOA. As Ethiopian-Americans, we are also patriotic tax-paying citizens of this remarkable nation, the United States of America,” he said.
And that gives us somewhat of a reason to urge that VOA and its staff members not to afford a chance to be dictated by foreign entities. We strongly believe the incident must be investigated by the Inspector General,” he noted.
A history of tension
The regime is widely criticized for extrajudicial killings, torture, abuse of power, corruption, mass displacement, land grab, discrimination and other forms of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity. During the aftermath of the 2005 elections turmoil, the regime had even filed treason and genocide charges against four veteran VOA broadcasters, among so many others, which were dropped after the U.S. government intervened in the matter.
During a visit to Ethiopia of three members of the Broadcasting Board Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA and other U.S. international broadcasters, in June 2011, the tyrannical regime reportedly submitted a lengthy complaint against VOA and a blacklist of dissidents that it wanted to be banned from VOA airwaves. Former VOA Horn of Africa Chief David Arnold had revealed that the regime wanted VOA to deny platform to a number of critics and dissidents. But Arnold was mysteriously suspended after disclosing the demands.
In 2010 the late dictator Meles Zenawi compared VOA to the infamous Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, which incited the tragic genocide that devastated the nation.
“We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda,” he had said after openly ordering the jamming of VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia.
His accusation was quickly rejected by the U.S. State Department as “baseless and inflammatory”. The State Department replied to the accusation by demanding the government to protect fundamental rights of freedom of expression.
Codes of ethics
VOA code of ethics prohibits employees or contract workers from working for any other state or media outlets without specific VOA authorization. It also emphasizes that in providing accurate information and news to those living under repressive regimes. “Broadcasting accurate, balanced and complete information to the people of the world, and particularly to those who are denied access to accurate news, serves the national interest and is a powerful source of inspiration and hope for all those who believe in freedom and democracy,” VOA journalistic code underlines.
Last year BBG joined BBC, Deutsche Welle and France 24 in condemning the TPLF-led regime for jamming their broadcasts, including VOA, in flagrant violation of well-established international rules and procedures on operating satellite equipment.
“The interference is contrary to the international regulations that govern the use of radio frequency transmissions and the operation of satellite systems, and inhibits the ability of individuals to freely access media according to Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights,” they noted in a joint statement.
“They are disrupting international news broadcasts for no apparent reason. This is a deliberate act of vandalism that tarnishes their reputation,” said Liliane Landor, acting Director of the BBC World Service Group.
Allergic to critical voices and media coverage, the regime has tried everything in its power to stop and disrupt Voice of America broadcasts for over two decades. Despite all the efforts, including jamming VOA’s shortwave and satellite broadcasts to Ethiopia, as well as putting diplomatic pressure, it failed to produce the desired effect.
Ethiopia, which tops annual lists of repression, ranked 4th in CPJ’s 2015 rank of 10 Most Censored Countries. “In Ethiopia–number four on CPJ’s most censored list–the threat of imprisonment has contributed to a steep increase in the number of journalist exiles. Amid a broad crackdown on bloggers and independent publications in 2014, more than 30 journalists were forced to flee,” CPJ research shows. CPJ blamed the 2009 anti-terrorism law for criminalizing any reporting and freedom of expression.
Notwithstanding all the effort, TPLF’s strategy of jamming and filing false charges against journalists and dissidents has failed to bear any fruits. But its latest effort to directly talk to journalists at VOA and other independent media outlets will undoubtedly have an impact on the Horn of Africa section as the regime is expanding its support network from within and dangling carrots and sticks. It seems there are some who are lured by the dangling carrots in exchange for taking assignments beyond their journalistic duties.
VOA has not yet replied to a list of questions submitted by this reporter on the secret meeting which allegedly had an effect of interfering with VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia through direct and questionable contact from within the newsroom.