What next for VOA Amharic?

By Hindessa Abdul / May 5, 2010

In what seems to be a brazen move against a major donor, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi decided to jam Voice of America (VOA), a voice that was part of the Ethiopian airwaves for almost three decades. The PM accused VOA of “engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” He even went as further as comparing the Washington DC based broadcaster to Radio Mille Collins of Rwanda of the early 1990s which is considered to be the voice of génocidaires.

The announcement didn’t come as a surprise for the transmission was jammed as of February. But it was a pleasure hearing it from the horses own mouth.

Don’t envy the spokesperson

When VOA audience in Addis first complained about the poor quality of transmission, it was clear the government was interfering.  However the spokesperson, Mr Shimeles Kemal, was adamant in denying it. "This is a baseless allegation," he said first. On another occasion “the Ethiopian government does not support the policy of restricting foreign broadcasting services in the country. Such practices are prohibited in our constitution.” Then days later “Ethiopia has a constitution which outlaws any act by any official organ to restrict the dissemination of broadcast material from abroad.”

His boss need not want to beat around the bush.  He never cared for what Mr Shimeles had been insisting all along. He was not only blunt to tell the U.S., which blesses the regime with 1 billion dollar annually, that he was jamming them, he even went as far to  explaining about the timetables.

Then the poor spokesperson had no option except to swallow his pride and say VOA “has repeatedly broadcast programs and statements that tend to incite, foment hatred between different ethnic groups."

The director’s reaction,”VOA deplores jamming and any other form of censorship of the media”, was hardly a deterrent. Mr Danforth Austin was rather angry at the comparison with the Rwandan radio than the actual jamming, since he has almost 50 language services to worry about.

Neither the jamming nor the obsession with everything pre-1994 Rwanda is not new. In 2005 Ethiopian not only jammed the VOA, they even charged five of the journalists of the Station with genocide. In 2008 the broadcaster was jammed again. Authorities also put pressure by threatening to deny accreditation to the Addis based journalists. Some of the correspondents are not new to the security forces. Mr Meleskachew Amha was brutally beaten during the 2005 elections. More recently he was detained on dubious charges.

Ironically, Ethiopian officials still give interviews to the broadcaster. VOA journalists are still accredited and working. It seems the Ethiopian government doesn’t know what it really wants to do.


Voice of America is government funded broadcaster that has been set up during the Second World War to counter anti U.S. propaganda. Its role during the cold war was immense. It has played a significant role in bringing down the Iron Curtain. With an annual budget of around $ 200 million, it broadcasts 1,500 hours of programming in 49 languages. Amharic being one of them.

The Amharic service of the Voice of America was launched in 1982 when the Mengistu regime was decidedly in power, with its ideology oriented towards Marxism and more importantly after it pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union camp. Back then it was one of the few sources of alternative news in otherwise a completely isolated country.

With the ascent of EPRDF/TPLF to power, the VOA’s role seemed to be fading. As private newspapers were mushrooming and a lot of other alternative news sources emerging, many can be forgiven for writing VOA off the radar. But as it turns out, the journey has only begun.

Good bye VOA?

Now the all evident fact on the ground: VOA is disappearing from the Ethiopian airwaves. If the recent email sent to its subscribers is an indication, the Voice seems to have lost the battle, not the war though. In the email dated April 26 VOA confirms “service has been recently interrupted by the Ethiopian government.” It also states: “they have blocked access to our Horn of Africa website for all who live in Ethiopia”.  For the moment the calculation as clearly put by the Economist “the Voice of America does more harm inside the country than outside criticism of his censorship” seems to be working.

According to audience researches 11-20 percent of adult Ethiopians tune to the radio station. That is a tremendous amount of audience thrown into the news blackout. Ethiopians in Diaspora still enjoy listening to the broadcaster. VOA is certainly serving as a platform of exchanging views and ideas among the Diaspora also. But the ultimate target is the 80 million strong population who has rarely enjoyed the benefit of free media.

”other alternatives”

In a desperate bid to outmaneuver Ethiopian jammers, VOA announced the addition of shortwave frequencies, launching of morning shows and the commencement of satellite transmission. It communicated to its audience technical terms and numbers which can rather be understood by the staff at Sululta Satellite Station. Some may as well prefer the blackout than have to decipher those figures. Of course VOA is exploring”other alternatives”.

In an editorial entitled Silence not golden in Ethiopia, VOA insists the United States is “a friend and supporter of Ethiopia”. That diplomatic tone didn’t seem to impress the rulers in Addis. As part of the rhetoric of not repeating the mistakes of May 2005, the regime in Addis will continue to jam the voice until after the elections.

It is clear that the U.S. is currently held hostage of a regime it propped up with massive military and economic aid under the misguided assumption of “an ally on war on terror”. What should be clear is that that money is also being used to jam U.S. radios and web services.

Lessons to draw

·         VOA cannot continue depending on traditional means of broadcasting

·         VOA can also expect more sophisticated ways of jamming and filtering from Ethiopia, in large part thanks to the Chinese assistance. Chinese have long become champions of web filtering.

·          On the positive note though, the regime in Ethiopian cannot continue blocking access to news media. It may create temporary problems like what we are experiencing now. But it will not have the financial and technical abilities to hold on to this kind of behavior for long time.

·         It is also time for the U.S. to think about upholding its core values of democracy and rule of law, even when it comes to a corner 12 thousand kilometers away.