VOA and Ethiopia: Challenges and Danger

By Eskinder Nega / July 22, 2011
Come Monday, July 25, 2011, a protest rally by Ethiopians on 330 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC will most likely draw the keen interest of a southern Republican Senator, Tom Coburn. Here at last is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the US government agency which has oversight authority over the VOA, at the center of a brewing controversy.

Coburn is the junior Senator form Oklahoma who was first elected to Congress in 1994. A fiscal and social conservative, Coburn, a medical doctor by training, was elected to the Senate in 2004 after serving six years in the House of Representatives. In 2010 Oklahomans returned him to the Senate with a whooping 73 % of the votes cast. In 2004 his plurality had stood at only 53%.

What has impressed conservative Oklahoma most about Coburn is his war against government waste. He is celebrated for his battles against pork-barrel and the expansion of the federal government. And no government agency than BBG irks him more. “The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government,” he has said in an interview with The Cable in 2010. “All they are doing is spending money.”

BBG was established in 1994 with an oversight mandate over all non-military U.S. government international broadcastings. This means, in the words of a GAO report, “five separate broadcast entities,” including the VOA. But amazingly, all of the eight bi-partisan governors that make up the BBG, which has management responsibilities over a 600 million dollars budget and nearly 4000 employees, are unpaid part-time volunteers. And Coburn insists, perhaps a bit too harshly, that BBG board members are “people who know nothing about media and foreign policy.” (Dana Perino, once a White House press secretary and now a BBG board member, concedes she did not know about the Cuban missile crisis until recently.)

Three members of this BBG, Susan McCue, Dana Perino(yes, of the Cuban missile crisis fame), and Michael Meehan traveled to three African countries between June 21 and June 27, 2011. They came primarily as part of BBG’s expansive “review of broadcast operations in Africa,” and no doubt with Ethiopia in mind, which jams VOA, “(to) stress the importance of a free and unfettered press.”

They came to Ethiopia hoping to meet with government officials. Meles, of course, would have been the ideal person to see. He continues to sanction jamming and had abysmally accused the VOA of “genocidal disposition.” (Ironically, it was one of his favorite radio stations during his years as an insurgent.) But he snubbed them. They had to settle for his decidedly less pleasant underling, Berket Simon.

Berket is notably incapable of either dialogue or negotiation. He instinctively lectures or demands. And had it not been for the extraordinary courage of David Abnor, then VOA’s horn of Africa chief and one of four media officials traveling with the board members, Berket’s bizarre demands and complaints would never have seen light of day.

Astonishingly, Abnor did not opt for the safest means of exposing wrong. He could have easily leaked the documents and watched the story unfold from the sidelines, as is conventionally done. But Berket’s prejudice and malice must have riled him. He went on to personally publicize and refute the complaints Berket had obviously assumed would stay behind closed doors; heroically jeopardizing his career prospects. He was soon suspended (and later reinstated to a different position.)

The diversity of the people blacklisted by Berket, first disclosed partially by Abnor, and then fully by the outstanding investigative reporting of Addis Voices’ editor, Abebe Gelaw, illustrates just how insecure EPRDF’s key leaders have become since the dramatic events of the Arab spring.

One could reasonably expect Dr Berhanu Nega, leader of outlawed Ginbot-7, and Dr Beyana Soba, spokesperson of outlawed OLF, to be on any blacklist the EPRDF would have. But what, if not hysteria, explains the inclusion of even Dr Beyene Petros, a member of parliament for nineteen of the past twenty years? This neither is fanatical intolerance nor, as some may suspect, calculated posturing to garner maximum concession before an eventual settlement. Rather, this is neurosis revealed of a regime profoundly uncertain of its future. Here is proof if ever there was the need of a government in a state of crisis. This is the blessing in disguise the public had needed for some time. In plain sight now stands an authoritarian EPRDF visibly less stable and less sure of itself than popularly imagined.

But there is also the disquieting facet to this still unfolding saga. In a July 18th report, VOA censorship revealed, Abebe Gellaw, published the contents of a leaked email from Gwen Dillard, who heads VOA’s African division, to journalists in the horn of Africa section. “VOA should be more focused on development matters,” she wrote, apparently acquiescing to Bereket’s core demand. “There should be less attention to the Ethiopian Diaspora as well as issues focused on political affairs.”

The editorial shift was highlighted within days when a story about a high-profile public discourse between major political parties held in Washington was abruptly dropped. Outraged Ethiopians have vowed to protest on Monday.

The VOA’s standing in the Ethiopian market was meticulously cultivated by consistency in reporting up-to-date hard news and events. This excellence, rather than bias in favor of his party, was what had once made Meles Zenawi an avid listener. And it is also this dependability that has ensured VOA’s phenomenally high listener’s devotion over the years. Tamper with the nucleus of this standard, as a coerced rather than market-driven focus on development issues will inevitably entail, and listeners will simply tune off in droves. No media can take its market for granted.

There are indeed scores of VOA services, Arabic, Persian, and Pashto amongst others, which would clearly gain from a strategic overhaul. But the horn of Africa section is hardly one of them.

A word of advice to BBG: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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