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Ethiopia: VOA is Not VOZ!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

VOA is the Voice of America. It is emphatically not the VOZ (Voice of Zenawi) or anyone else. Thus spoke VOA Acting Director Steve Redisch responding to the firestorm of controversy surrounding revelations of a blacklist of critics drawn up by the über-dictator Meles Zenawi and presented to a delegation of the Governing Board of the VOA vitisitng Ethiopia:

We are the Voice of America and will continue to provide news and information that meet our highest standards… We’re not the voice of the opposition or the Diaspora or the government… Voice of America’s Horn of Africa service will not be shying away from reporting on Ethiopian politics… VOA will provide an array of voices and opinions to allow Ethiopians to make their own decisions about what to believe and who to trust. That is our job and the job of a free media….

This past June, Zenawi had secretly and stealthily attempted to both sweet-talk and arm-twist the VOA to do his dirty job of muzzling, silencing and censoring his critics by having them permanently banned from appearing on any VOA broadcasts. In a 41-page “complaint” (English translation) spanning the first five months of 2011, Zenawi catalogued a bizarre,  incoherent and comical set of allegations which he believes represent a pattern and practice of VOA reporting that showed bias, distortions, lies, misrepresentation, intolerance, one-sidedness, unfairness, partiality, unethical and unprofessional journalism and whatever else. But Zenawi’s allegations, as demonstrated below, are wild, preposterous and unsupported by the very “evidence” he proffers. They could only be described as the figments of a paranoid imagination.

Examination of the “Evidence” in Zenawi’s “Complaint” to the VOA

Zenawi’s “complaint” is specifically directed at VOA’s Amharic program and clusters around three sets of issues.

The first set focuses on VOA interviews of various academics, human rights activists, opposition party leaders and other critics of Zenawi. Here is a sampling: Zenawi argues that former President and opposition leader Dr. Negasso Gidada should have been censored by the VOA for stating: “The method EPDRF is pursuing is the one used in the Soviet Union.” Opposition leader Dr. Hailu Araya should not have been interviewed because he said, “In an environment where political repression prevails, participating elections would be meaningless.” VOA should have banned opposition leader Dr. Berhanu Nega because he said, “So, what happened in North Africa would gradually but inevitably happen in other African countries because freedom is a basic need of all humans…” Opposition leader Seeye Abraha’s statement should not have been aired because he stated, “Regimes are being shaken through peaceful popular movements.” Opposition leader Dr. Merara Gudina’s interview should not have been broadcast because he said, “I made the point that clearing the parliament from oppositions is a step backward for democracy, which benefits no one.” Dr. Beyana Soba should not have been interviewed because he believes the “Oromo Liberation Front does not involve in any terrorist activity. We do not use this [terror] as a strategy in our struggle.”

Zenawi also wants a number of well-known Ethiopian academics blacklisted. Zenawi complains against professor Getachew Metaferia because he described the Egyptian uprising as a “manifestation of accumulated grievances” for “20 years of bad governance, absence of democracy, unemployment, high cost of living.” Prof. Getachew Haile should have been muzzled by the VOA because he believes “The driving force that motivates the people to seek change is the hunger prevailing in the country.” Prof. Ahmad Mowen should not have appeared on a VOA broadcast because he subscribes to the view that “All people are freedom lovers. Rulers must go in tune with peoples’ aspirations.”

Zenawi further wants the VOA to blackball certain Ethiopian journalists and human rights activities. The VOA should have avoided interviewing Eskinder Nega, the unapologetically  patriotic and indomitable Ethiopian journalist, because Eskinder publicly stated that the  “Deputy Federal Police Commissioner” had warned him: “We are tired of throwing you in prison; we won’t put you in jail any more. We will take our own measure.”  Human rights activist Neamin Zeleke should have been banished from VOA microphones for saying:  “The situation (Ethiopians are in) is even worse than the situation in which the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are in.” Juhar Mohammed Juhar should have been censored because he said: “In Ethiopia dictator survived for 20 years now. Even German lawmaker Thilo Hoppe was not spared Zenawi’s censorship-mania. Hoppe should have   been denied air time because he said, “The situation is bad [in Ethiopia]. It is also shocking. There must be a new round of talks on development cooperation between German and Ethiopia.”

Zenawi’s second set of complaints focus on what are alleged to be biased editorial comments or questions used by VOA reporters in interviewing various guests. Zenawi proffers as evidence of VOA distortion and bias a statement in one broadcast in which a reporter allegedly questioned, “And today the people of Jordan took to the streets, like the people of Egypt and Tunisia, demanding a change in government… Could it possibly inspire similar situation against other authoritarian regimes in Africa?” Another reporter is cited for distortion for allegedly stating, “Medrek has condemned what is said ‘a conspiracy’ carried out against its member organization Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereign Party.”  Another reporter should have been sanctioned for stating, “The [Egyptian] Army has done a good job with the people in minimizing casualties among the people, preventing vandalism, and in maintaining the legality of the protests.” Zenawi alleges bias in an editorial comment which purportedly stated:  “The prime minister has severely accused the Eritrean government… The prime minister has called for the spirit of cooperation to exist between the governments of the two countries.” A VOA reporter  is blamed for observing: “The meeting that the Ethiopian government held last Saturday with Ethiopians and foreign citizens of Ethiopian origin in several U.S. states and two Canadian cities cannot be said successful.”

The third set of complaints is directed at VOA’s airing of listener comments. Among the targets of Zenawi’s complaint is an opinion by listener “Dibabu” from Texas who said, “the incumbent government in Ethiopia is as brutal and murderer as the Derg…” A comment by a listener from Ethiopia should have been censored because it stated, “It has become common knowledge that whenever the Ethiopian government, whenever it fails to meet challenges of the internal crises, it strives to divert he peoples’ attention by engaging in undue war of words with its immediate neighbors.”

No reasonable person would find any of the statements in the “complaint” legitimate subject matter of government censorship. The statements are typical of opinions and views expressed by individuals opposed to a particular regime or government. But there are a number of things that should be pointed out in regards to the content of the 41-page “complaint”. First, none of the allegations challenge the accuracy, truthfulness or veracity of the statements. Second, the “complaint” is directed at suppressing certain viewpoints and dissenting voices, particularly those who are critical of Zenawi’s policies and actions. Third, all of the statements complained of are expressions of opinion on the lack of oficial accountability and transparency in Ethiopia, disregard for the rule of law and abuse of power, violations of human rights and denial democratic rights to Ethiopian citizens. Fourth, the “complaint” is a thinly-veiled attempt to pressure the VOA into muzzling and blacklisting  Zenawi’s critics in the U.S. The “complaint” could be viewed as an illegal attempt at a quid pro quo arrangement in the nature of an extortion, that is in exchange for VOA blackballing Zenawi’s critics, Zenawi will unjam VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia.  Is it an attempted shakedown of an American government agency?  Subjected to legal scrutiny under American law, the issues in the “complaint” raise significant questions and issues of criminal law since they are manifestly intended to interfere with the constitutional rights of American citizens and inhabitants. Fifth, all of the statements cited in the complaint are fully protected speech under American law, international human rights conventions and even the Ethiopian Constitution. Sixth,  the “complaint” on its face, or by any other rational means shows nor proves a pattern or practice by the VOA to engage in biased, distorted or otherwise improper reporting on Zenawi or his regime. Seventh, the “complaint” is inane, irrational and nonsensical.

The “compliant” is itself evidence of Zenawi’s desperation and manifest exhaustion in the face of relentless and unremitting criticism by those who disagree with him.  But cloistered in his bubble, he does not seem to understand why he is the object of sharp and universal criticism and condemnation.  He has succeeded in totally decimating the independent press inside the country. Individual journalists who have the courage to speak their minds and tell the truth are nabbed in the street threatened, jailed and placed in solitary confinement. Just a couple of weeks ago, two young journalists, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu were imprisoned in violation of their human and constitutional rights. Zenawi steals elections. He trashes human rights and tramples on the rule of law. Zenawi may believe  he is criticized and condemned because his critics and opponents bear him personal ill-will. That would be a grossly mistaken view.  Reasonable, responsible, ethical and patriotic Ethiopians subscribe to the principle that “one should hate the sin and not the sinner.”

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from this sordid “complaint” affair. The VOA should learn that removing online programs, suspending employees for telling the truth, directing reporters not to take notes during meetings, delaying response until issues become critical and taking other acts that appear to be heavy-handed and create a climate of self-censorship are things that should not be repeated because they cast considerable doubt over the integrity and professionalism of the institution. For the VOA to come out and assert its independence and professional and institutional integrity and declare that it will perform its duties according to its legal mandates and ethical  standards and is not beholden to any external entity or group is a very good thing as it inspires public confidence and trust.

For Ethiopians in the U.S., the principal lesson is that they have the legal mechanisms to hold the VOA accountable. Abebe Gelaw, the young Ethiopian journalist, was instrumental in exposing a number of things in this controversy including revelation of the 41-page “complaint.” Abebe is an example of what young Ethiopian journalists in Ethiopia could do as government watchdogs if they had press freedoms. He deserves high commendations. We all must learn that the VOA operates within a strict legal and professional environment. It is accountable to its statutory obligations and journalistic standards. We can play a positive role by making sure the VOA performs its mission and duties by the book.

The most important lesson is left for Zenawi: One can muzzle those with ideas by throwing them in jail, but not their ideas. The people who spoke their minds on the VOA broadcasts are vendors in the global marketplace of ideas. If their ideas are bought by the people of Ethiopia, there is no power in the universe that can stop them.  Victor Hugo said, “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.” The time for democracy in Ethiopia is now. Dictatorship is an idea that has no time or place in Ethiopia, Africa or the the modern world.

In 21st Century democratic politics, criticism, skepticism, denunciation, condemnation, denigration, vilification and disapprobation of politicians and self-appointed leaders are accepted facts of political life. This reality is incomprehensible only to those unwilling to face the naked truth about their evil ways.

Perhaps Zenawi craves praise, appreciation and adulation. He can easily get it, but he must do the right thing: Abide by the rule of law. The fact of the matter is that politics is a thankless job and those engaged in it should reasonably expect to get a whole lot more criticism and precious little appreciation and gratitude. President Obama, the “leader of the free world” is the target of withering daily criticism by those opposed to his policies and even challenge his citizenship and place of birth. Should the leader of the unfree world expect any less? You can’t stop criticism by information blackouts or by blacklisitng and blackballing critics. Criticism comes with the territory. Deal with it! If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!

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