Voice of America: Do Not Censor the Voiceless!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The record will show that I have been an unapologetic defender of the Voice of America. A couple of weeks ago, I defended the VOA as the Voice of the Voiceless. When Zenawi lambasted the VOA for being the flipside of the VOI (Voice of Interhamwe-Rwanda), I rose to its defense. When Zenawi jammed the broadcasts of the VOA to Ethiopia in 2010, I defended the right of the VOA to broadcast to Ethiopians and the right of Ethiopians to receive VOA broadcasts. I am the #1 fan of the VOA.

Now there are disturbing revelations that dictator Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia has been trying to secretly arm-twist and remote-control the VOA  into  blacklisting his critics in the U.S. and elsewhere and  denying them access to the VOA. A 41-page document posted online shows a not-so-subtle attempt by Zenawi to identify and muzzle critics who gave interviews on the VOA. The document purports to be a complaint about the bias of certain VOA reporters, but the subliminal message is clear. If the VOA continues to give airtime to certain viewpoints and individuals, Zenawi’s regime will continue to jam VOA broadcasts. The implicit deal (quid pro quo) offered is that the electronic jamming  will stop if Zenawi’s critics are banished from VOA microphones permanently.

Zenawi may try to conceal his blacklist as a complaint of bias. But we understand his message to the VOA loud and clear. But we should also send our own crystal clear message to the VOA:

I. We will hold the VOA accountable to its own journalistic standards (“Audiences ‘ Bill of Journalism Rights” ) as set forth in the Voice of America’s Journalist Standards & Practices (document 11-023 and 11-024). We remind the VOA to meet its solemn obligations to its audience and respect their

right to expect that(VOA)  journalists will monitor power and give voice to the voiceless. The press should use its watchdog power to uncover things that are important and new and that change community thinking… The press should monitor all the key centers of power in the community-including but not limited to government.

II. We expect a thorough, complete and fair investigation of the allegations in the 41-page “complaint” and release of the findings within a reasonable time. We expect to review and comment on the outcome of the investigation and the specific findings.

III. We shall remain vigilant for any evidence of viewpoint censorship, editorial policy changes to exclude issues and individuals deemed critical of the ruling regime or leaders of the regime in Ethiopia, patterns and practices calculated to limit, prevent or otherwise systematically exclude pro-democracy voices from VOA broadcasts.

IV. We shall remain prepared to defend our constitutional rights of free expression against a foreign government acting on its own or jointly and severally with any other private or governmental entity.

V. Just as the VOA has a duty to become a voice for the voiceless, on July 24, 2011, the VOA has a duty to listen intently to the voices of the voiceless who will appear to register their concerns.

The vast majority of Ethiopians in the U.S. are fully supportive of the VOA and its mission. We have great respect and admiration for the professionalism and integrity of VOA journalists, reporters, editors and management. Above all, we fully support the VOA for being a beacon of not only information and knowledge for the people of Ethiopia, but also a voice of democracy, human rights, moderation and reconciliation.