VOA succumbs to Ethiopian pressure

Voice of America (VOA) suspended its Horn of Africa Chief, David Abnor. His suspension is allegedly related to his comments concerning a recent meeting between VOA’s Board of Governors and Ethiopian government officials in Addis Ababa, opposition web-based media claimed. In his comment to VOA Amharic service, on June 23, Mr. Abnor suggested that Ethiopian government demanded VOA to improve its service and provided a list of individuals ‘whose voice is not to be heard in Ethiopia.’

The meeting took place on June 22(or23) when three members of the Board of Governors(BBG) arrived in Addis Ababa, as part of their trip to Africa which includes South Sudan and Nigeria. Though the press release on BBG’s website mentioned only the three Governors, namely Dana Perino, Susan McCue, and Michael Meehan, it was learnt latter that the Horn of Africa head, David Abnor, was on the team.

The purpose the visit, which is stated differently in two posts on the BBG websites and on BBG’s blog on tumblr can be summarized as: the visit [is] part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ strategic review of broadcast operations in Africa, aims to broaden the Voice of America’s reach and impact in Africa, to address challenges and opportunities in the region, aims to seek greater market access, aims to address challenges VOA reporters and partners face in the region, and will stress the importance of a free and unfettered press.

However, Mr. Abnor said the objectives were to improve VOA’s relation with the government, to persuade the latter to halt jamming VOA’s broadcasts in the three local languages and to expand news network in regions.

The delegation intended to meet will meet with ‘high-ranking government officials, VOA journalists and Regional broadcasting affiliates, and representatives of state and private media.’

Following their meeting with the Head of Government Communications, Minister Bereket Simon, and his aids, the delegation simply posted a group photo(see on the picture) with a forced[L to R] BBG Governors Susan McCue and Dana Perino Minister Bereket Simon and BBG Governor Michael Meehan in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia smile and a note ‘BBG Governors meet today with Ethiopia’s Minister of Government Communications Affairs (and communications advisor to Prime Minister Zenawi) Bereket Simon to seek improved market access for VOA programming and advocate for greater freedom of the press.’

The secret behind the forced smiles were revealed when VOA’s Amharic service reported about the meeting on June 23 quoting Mr. Abnor.

Mr Abnor siad the government accused VOA of unbalanced reporting, favoritism for opposition voices and lack of journalistic ethics. He revealed that weeks ago the government provided the US Embassy in Addis with a 41 page report, repapered in Amharic language, covering months of VOA’s broadcasts. He made some hesitant remarks that the Ethiopian government ‘appears to demand critical voices’, and added ‘if so, VOA wouldn’t be able to conform to the demands’. He also claimed the ‘discussion was promising and will continue’. However, he claimed that Mr. Bereket pledged to entertain new initiatives and ideas from VOA if it excludes a number of individuals from its broadcast. The list includes
*Berhanu Nega(PhD) leader of Ginbot 7 – a terrorist organization
*Ali Abdu, Eritrea’s Minister of Information
*Paulos Milkias, an opposition politician in the Ethiopian diaspora
*Getachew Metaferia, an opposition politician in the Ethiopian diaspora
*Girma Mogus
*Merera Gudina (PhD) , leader of a legal opposition party in Ethiopia
*Beyene Petros (PhD) , leader of a legal opposition party in Ethiopia
*Seye Abrha (PhD) , leader of a legal opposition party in Ethiopia

VOA claimed they sought a comment from Bereket Simon and he responded that he is not willing to take part on their broadcast until they improve their service.

This happened two weeks ago on June 23..

Today, AddisVoice, an opposition media based in the US, reported, citing unnamed sources within VOA, that Mr. Abnor is suspended as a result of ‘his comments in a news report that was broadcast on VOA Amharic service on June 23rd.

In what appears to be an unprecedented move in VOA’s history, bosses ordered the removal of the audio as well as text files of the news report in question from VOA’s website and archive pages in less than 24 hours after Ethiopian officials lodged complaints about the report on “confidential” matters, it was learn.

[Bereket] Simon was said to have complained that the June 23rd report ruined ongoing talks. He threatened to cancel further talks with the delegation and cease any future cooperation. Before the VOA chief was suspended, he was reportedly admonished for expressing critical views and airing sensitive information without seeking clearance from the delegation.

In an email sent to Addis Voice, VOA’s Director of Public Relations, David Borgida denied allegations of censorship. “VOA always strives to be accurate in its reporting. That includes material on our websites. There was a misinterpretation of what went on during a recent meeting between Ethiopian government officials and visiting BBG Governors, and so the recent item you cite, which appeared on the website of the VOA Amharic service, was taken down.”

Asked to explain why VOA did not publicly issue corrections instead of deleting the whole content, Mr. Borgida declined to comment.

Addis Voice also asked why the Horn of Africa chief was suspended. “”We do not comment publicly on personnel matters,” he said.

When I pressed Borgida to explain if the “personal matter” included his comments contained in the news report in question, Borgida said that VOA would not give any further statements on this matter.

But Addis Voice has confirmed from two reliable sources that VOA bosses were not pleased with Abnor’s comments on sensitive issues that they felt needed clearance.

Though it is curious why VOA went as far as removing the news items rom its website, Mr. Abnor’s blunder is evident. He should have known Bereket couldn’t seriously ask VOA to deny access to leaders of legal opposition parties – a request not even local media would accept. It was rather a bargain strategy, in which Bereket would later make a ‘concession’ and settle for the limiting of individuals explicitly promoting voices. There are also a number of settlement options. Perhaps, Mr. Abnor noted the strategy and wanted to corner the government by revealing ‘the demands’. A wrong move for a party with limited options.

It is also suspicious why it took the Ethiopian government two weeks to lodge a complaint, unless, once again, Bereket Simon is testing how far they can be pushed. But that wouldn’t be surprising coming from Ethiopia’s propaganda architect and chief negotiator of the ruling party.

At any rate, it appears VOA is moving to a new phase.

There may even more surprises when the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) completes its ‘broad strategic review of U.S. international broadcasting and to advance its ongoing reform process.’ The Board of Governors is a federal agency, supervising U.S. government-supported, civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).

The Board of Governors estimates VOA’s audience in Ethiopia up to 3 million in Ethiopia. An estimation apparently made before April 2010 when it was accessible by radio.

Related post: Leaked Cables reveal: VOA serves Political Agenda

Daniel Berhane

more recommended stories