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
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
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
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.
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.