VOA Amharic walking a tight rope

Originally posted on May 31, 2011

Voice of America’s relationship with the Ethiopian authorities has been a rocky one. For over a decade, after the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) ascension to power VOA was hardly a major source of news for many Ethiopians. It was all good and nobody bothered the Washington D.C. based broadcaster.  Jamming and filtering were not even in the vocabularies of the authorities in Addis.

voa-logoWith the clampdown of the Ethiopian private press in the mid 2000s, the public suddenly turned to VOA to get unadulterated news as was back in the cold war years, when a vast swath of population from Central America to the Ural Mountains lent an ear.

While VOA broadcasts to the Horn of African country in the three languages of Amharic, Oromiffa and Tigrigna, the Amharic service is the focus of most of the scrutiny. The government’s spokesperson Mr Bereket Simon refuses to give interviews to the Amharic section preferring the Tigrigna Service. It seems either VOA’s policies vary from language to language or the authorities at Arat Kilo lack clear policies towards the Station.

VOA Amharic has been through rough times particularly in the past couple of years. About five of its journalists have been accused of treason and genocide by Ethiopian regime until pressure from the State Department forced the prosecutors to drop the charges.  Even before that, one of VOA Amharic correspondents in Addis Ababa has been seriously attacked by ruling party henchmen. But that was only the beginning. The rulers decided to jam both the radio station and their website.

Last September the Prime Minister (PM)  told an audience gathered at  Columbia University in New York ,  “VOA Amharic service happen to be dominated by people who are associated with the previous regime, ”  he went on to conclude,  “VOA is not welcome to broadcast in Ethiopia.”  There was no pretense about democracy or the rule of law. It was a characteristically in- your- face kind of talk.

For the record, the so called Ethiopian Constitution the PM wrote back in 1994, with a little help from the late Kifle Wodajo, has a line that reads: everyone has the right… to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print… the article goes on like that with all beautiful bells and whistles.

Politics of accreditation

While VOA has two Amharic correspondents based in the Capital, it also has regional stingers. At the moment there is only one regional correspondent that covers – for the most part – the Tigray Regional State. In the past there were also occasional reporters. But now it seems the authorities have refused to renew their accreditation.  No official explanation has been given so far. One of the stingers has waited for so long in vain that he decided to vent his ideas as a contributor.

Accreditation has become an effective instrument of controlling the foreign media. The Bloomberg correspondent in Addis Mr Jason McLure was detained for days but fearing further repercussions he decided to keep silence about his ordeals.  Otherwise it could have cost him denial of accreditation. Even in one of his recent articles entitled “Why democracy isn’t working” he preferred to shun that issue.  The BBC correspondent Umam Diak has also shared the same fate. She chose to get solace in the old Ethiopian adage: silence is golden.

But for the contributor of “Life in the Village“(Hiwot Bekebele), as it turns out, the story is a bit different. He is the correspondent of choice for the authorities. His most important credentials: he cut his teeth in the TPLF armed struggle.  He is also the beneficiary of the subsequent perks that come with becoming member of the ruling party including a degree from the Civil Service College which mints top level cadres. If the authorities in Addis were to be promised correspondents like him, the beef with VOA would have long faded.

Pressure everywhere

From what can be observed VOA is succumbing to the pressures of the government that pours millions to lobbyists. According to some data, the DLA Piper lobby firm was paid $ 50,000 per month from the pockets of Ethiopian peasants over several years. Other lobby firms were paid millions from starving Ethiopians. That seems to have bore fruit now. The pressure is evident in the latest news reports from VOA Amharic. One particularly sounded like the show trials of the Stalinist era, the ideology of which TPLF inherited.

Residents of the northern Ethiopian town of Mekelle whose houses have been demolished by the City Council were presented to be happy when their houses were torn down.  Sound bite after sound bite they were confessing their transgressions and incriminating themselves. That kind of reporting is not new for Ethiopian state media though.

It dates back to the mid 90s when the then PM Mr Tamrat Layne (at the time the current PM was the President with executive power) went on ETV  to confess his conduct unbecoming by saying he has been advised several times not to engage in corrupt practices but he couldn’t “listen”.  After that scores of people have confessed on same national media about their terrorist plots, about their plans to bring down the “constitutional system”, and the ammunition they used and all.

Ordinary Ethiopians are used to that kind of reporting that it barely surprises anyone. When those kinds of reports are making their ways to the news rooms of VOA that becomes a concern.  VOA might be appeasing the Ethiopian authorities by compromising their standards.

The pressure on VOA goes beyond principles. In many occasions it becomes personal. In a press round up discussing the ups and downs of the past year, one of the producers was lamenting about her inability to attend to the burial of her mother. She didn’t go into the specifics.  But she was clearly gripped by the fear of arrest if she landed her homeland.

VOA also silently removed from its Facebook pages those who changed their profile pictures to “Beka” (Enough) signs which was calling for an Arab Spring kind of uprising in Ethiopia.  The regime’s deputy spokesperson hinted about a discussion with Deutche Welle officials about such matters. VOA officials under pressure or on their own judgment have decided to remove those profile pictures just like Deutche Welle.

While they have all the right to protect their web page from being a platform of a campaign of whatever causes, they still need to come forward and explain the situation to their millions of listeners as that clarifies the matters.

VOA is also falling victim to the agenda of the Ethiopian government. Its recent activities are geared towards the promotion of the latest cliché of Transformation and the Millennium Dam in Ethiopia. While it should be commended for some of its insightful interviews from different perspectives, it is also on the verge of falling to the trap of the regime in that the Station is increasingly sounding like the dreaded state media.

In conclusion…

VOA Amharic has to work hard to restore its credibility and serve as a forum for all the different news and views. But compromising their principles in the face of pressures will lead them to lose both their credibility and audience that has taken decades to build. As it stands now VOA looks like the juggler walking on the tight rope. With millions of audience on their side, VOA should not let the forces of darkness prevail up on them.m


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