Deutsche Welle (Ethiopia): A Disgrace to Press Freedom?
By Alemayehu G. Mariam / February 20, 2011
In a memorandum sent to Deutsche Welle’s (DW) [Germany's international broadcaster] “correspondents outside Ethiopia” in late 2010, Ludger Schadomsky, editor-in-chief of DW’s Amharic program, blasted “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension” as a “disgrace” to press freedom. “The amount of hatred splashed across [ethiomedia] is a disgrace to any politically sober mind,” declared Shadomsky self-righteously. To shelter his staff from the crazed haters (not of sober mind), Schadomsky issued a strict gag order: “Let me make it very plain that I will not have DW correspondents contribute ‘Letters-to-the editor’ or articles to ethiomedia and similar sites.”
Why is Schadomsky bent out of shape over “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension”? Apparently, he had been chewed out, tongue-lashed, dressed down, squeezed, badgered, blackmailed and “monitored” by none other than dictator Meles Zenawi’s doppelganger in charge of information. Schadomsky explained to his staff:
You will be aware of the close monitoring of the Ethiopian government of any activities by our staff members perceived to be ‘opposition activities’. I have a number of names thrown at me by Bereket Simon every time I am in Addis… We will be embarking on another attempt to secure additional licenses in Ethiopia. You will appreciate that any activity outside the realm of objective news reporting will harm those efforts, and is generally not in line with our editorial policy.”
In an “Open letter to ethiomedia.com” in January 2012, intended to refute “a number of articles on Ethiomedia alleging self-censorship at DW Amharic,” Schadomsky triumphantly depicted himself as a fearless defender of press freedom and a paragon of journalistic integrity. He declared unabashedly:
I would like to go on record as saying that we at DW Amharic neither bow to pressure from the government of Ethiopia, nor give in to the increasingly outrageous demands made by radicalized opposition figures and organizations. Our editorial policy is guided by one principle only, namely: to provide millions of Ethiopians with access to free and fair information in a country where media freedom is heavily curtailed.
Schadomsky claimed to be “flabbergasted” by allegations made in an “open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that DW Amharic deliberately shuns voices critical of the [Ethiopian] government in its programmes.” He carped, “One expects a certain degree of harassment from an authoritarian government… (but) I did not expect the same, and worse, harassment from people who claim to champion democracy and freedom of speech.” He pontificated: “You don’t have to be a citizen of a country still struggling with its Nazi past to find the phrase ‘the fascist Woyane regime in Addis Ababa’ horribly inappropriate, no matter how much one may disagree with the present government.”
Who is a Disgrace to Press Freedom?
As Schadomsky furiously wags an accusatory finger at “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension” and vilifies them as a “disgrace”, he fails to notice that three fingers are silently and squarely pointing at him. But closer scrutiny of Shadomsky’s claims reveal some unsettling facts:
Editorial Policy: Shadomsky vaguely alludes to DW’s “editorial policy”, which he claims is “guided by one principle only, namely: to provide millions of Ethiopians with access to free and fair information in a country where media freedom is heavily curtailed.” How does he reasonably expect to provide “free and fair information” to the Ethiopian people when is on his hands and knees groveling for “additional broadcasting licenses”? When did freedom (in any from including expression and the press) become a licensable activity or commodity in Germany?
Editorial policy uninformed by ethical and professional standards and principles of press freedom is pointless and delusional. The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (which has been in operation since 1909 and universally adopted by professional journalists) urges journalists to “give voice to the voiceless” and to “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so”. It instructs professional journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Schadomsky does not seem to be aware of these obligations.
Curiously, Schadomsky seems to have a very narrow understanding of journalism as he commands his staff to stay away from “any activity outside the realm of objective news reporting”. In pursuit of political correctness and “additional broadcasting licenses”, he has resolved to sacrifice news analysis, editorials and presentation of divergent viewpoints to his audience. Following Schadomsky’s “objective news theory”, DW Amharic could report that a major Ethiopian opposition political figure has been jailed, but related news or discussions of the legality of the imprisonment and the pattern and practice of official political persecution and human rights violations which nurture such arbitrary arrests and detentions in the country would be off limits. “Objective news” is meaningless without context, frame of reference. If “objective news” reporting is about fairness, accuracy and minimization of bias, the best way to achieve that is to allow expression of divergent views and opinions, and not underestimate the intelligence of Ethiopian listeners to separate fact from opinion.
The claim of pursuit of “objective news” is contradicted by other facts. For instance, coverage of certain opposition figures including Birtukan Midekssa while she was in prison was off limits. There is evidence showing that members of Zenawi’s embassy in Germany have met with DW’s Amharic staff at least twice and dictated terms and conditions to Schadomsky for their cooperation and granting of additional licenses. Among these conditions include DV’s avoidance of human rights related issues, banning of certain individuals from DW microphones (a fact Shadomsky admits when he stated in his memo, “I have a number of names thrown at me by Bereket Simon every time I am in Addis…”) and glorification of the economic and political progress made under Zenawi’s leadership.
Schadomsky also appears to believe that his editorial policy of tokenism by inviting a handful of Ethiopian opposition representatives from time to time proves journalistic neutrality and inclusiveness. He seems to believe that an occasional interview with Thilo Hoppe, German lawmaker and critic of Zenawi’s regime, opposition leader Berhanu Nega and “sole opposition MP, Ato Girma Seifu” in Ethiopia adequately represents the diversity of Ethiopian opposition views, or affords opponents of Zenawi’s regime a fair opportunity to be heard. But this policy of tokenism belies Schadomsky’s systematic and relentless browbeaitng and badgering of the Amharic staff to avoid certain subjects and ban certain critics of Zenawi’s regime from DW’s microphones, including Eskinder Nega, the present author and others.
But Schadomsky’s issues appear to go beyond lack of basic familiarity with professional journalistic ethics, conflict of interest principles, difficulties with truth-telling and imperious and cavalier treatment of his staff. Schadomsky can be challenged in three specific areas: 1) He simply cannot back up his accusatory claims which buttress his conclusion that “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension” are a disgrace to press freedom and the politically sober mind. 2) He manifests extreme sensitivity to criticism of his editorial policy or allegations of “self-censorship” and being a regime “mouthpice”. 3) There are significant questions which raise doubt about his professional competence to discharge his duties as editor-in chief of the Amharic program.
Hate Speech: In his January 2012 “Open Letter” Schadomisky alleges: “It is our view that some of the content splashed across certain news sites constitutes hate speech, and DW will not allow opinion pieces by its journalists to be posted alongside hate speech.” This conclusion is unsupported in Art. 5 (1) or other provisions of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (BL). Under the BL, there is a world of difference between offering an opinion and engaging in hate speech. Art. 5(1) guarantees that “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing…”
On the other hand, hate speech refers to “utterances which tend to insult, intimidate or harass a person or groups or utterances capable of instigating violence, hatred or discrimination.” The German Federal Constitutional Court has held that “opinions are characterized by an element of taking a position and of appraising” and “demonstration of their truth or untruth is impossible.” Consequently, opinions “enjoy the basic right’s (BL) protection regardless of whether their expression is judged to be well-founded or unfounded, emotional or rational, valuable or worthless, dangerous or harmless… and do not lose this protection by being sharply or hurtfully worded.”
Schadomsky’s offers only one concrete example of alleged hate speech by “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension” in his hyperbolic allegations of “splashed hate”. He claims: “You don’t have to be a citizen of a country still struggling with its Nazi past to find the phrase the ‘fascist Woyane regime in Addis Ababa’ horribly inappropriate, no matter how much one may disagree with the present government.”
This alleged example of “hate speech” is nothing more than an opinion — a value judgment, a statement of belief or impression — and is fully protected by Art. 5(1) of BL. Fascism is a discredited, though historically a dominant, political ideology. It extolls a party and state led by one supreme leader who exercises dictatorial powers over the party, the government and other state institutions. Fascist regimes reject liberal (“neoliberal”) forms of democracy based on majority rule and egalitarianism in favor of centralized power in the hands of a few.
It is not “hate speech” for one to call a regime a “fascist Woyane regime” (“Woyane” referring to a rebellion in Northern Ethiopia in 1943) if one holds such an opinion. Neither is it hate speech to lambaste Diaspora Ethiopian critics as “fundamentalist neo-liberals”, “extremist hardliners” or to bandy other silly but colorful descriptions.
Extreme Sensitivity to Criticism. For reasons that are not apparent, Schadomsky goes ballistic when faced with criticism. He seems to be particularly stung by criticism that his program practices “self-censorship” and has become a “mouthpiece” of Zenawi’s regime, something he claims has “dumfounded him” in light of the fact that the “Government of Ethiopia routinely jams our broadcasts for months at a time… and [has] refused us additional reporter licenses”. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Schadomsky doth protest too much, methinks.” By overreacting to such criticism, caustic and scathing as they may sound, Schadomsky risks validating them. The fact of the matter is that those in the media must tolerate criticism of their work and role because it comes with the territory. They just have to deal with it, not mope around moaning and groaning about it!
Competence to Serve as Editor-in-Chief: There is evidence to suggest that DW has a basic policy of appointing editors-in-chief in its radio programs who have facility in the particular programming language. For instance, the editors of the Africa programs — Hausa, Kiswahili, Portuguese — are said to be fluent in their respective languages. Schadomsky is said to have no fluency whatsoever in Amharic and largely depends on a single subordinate for advice and counsel in making editorial decisions. While this is an administrative matter, it does detract significantly from Schadomsky’s claim “to provide millions of Ethiopians with access to free and fair information in a country where media freedom is heavily curtailed.” His handicap in the Amharic language and reliance on the “heavily curtailed” information he receives from a single subordinate makes his claim of serving millions of Ethiopians rather hollow, if not laughable.
Schadomsky’s memo demonstrates that he is obsessed with political correctness, and fearful of unleashing the wrath of the powers that be in Ethiopia. This untenable situation has created a credibility gap for DW and a gullibility gap for Schadomsky. He can claim that there is no “self-censorship” at DW Amharic; but his memorandum is proof positive that there is not only self-censorship but also fear and loathing among his staff who wince at the very thought of expressing their views under his gag order. He can mount a campaign of fear and smear against “ethiomedia and similar websites by extension” and bombard them with verbal pyrotechnics in an attempt to deflect attention from his professional deficits and anemic ethical standards.
The fact of the matter is that the credibility of DW Amharic has been damaged beyond repair after the revelation of Schadomsky’s sanctimonious memorandum. As long as he remains at the helm, DW Amharic will be regarded by millions of Ethiopians as self-censoring, cowardly and trifling. Those who may listen to DW Amharic may do so not out of thirst for useful information but sheer habit. For most, DW Amharic will remain background static noise over the airwaves.
Apology is Due to Ethiomedia and Other Pro-Democracy Ethiopian Websites
Schadomsky owes “ethiomedia and similar sites by extension” an apology. He has unfairly characterized them as hateful and not having a “politically sober mind”. In other words, he has called them crazy hatemongers. They have their own viewpoints and perspectives as they are entitled to have; and they are passionate about their beliefs. Whatever faults they may have, one of them is not putting on a charade of being an independent news agency. I am confident that Ethiomedia and the other Ethiopian pro-democracy websites fully subscribe to the proposition that “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know.”
There is no disgrace in standing up for one’s beliefs; but it is a disgrace to speak with forked tongue. My deepest gratitude and appreciation goes to all of the pro-democracy Ethiopian websites worldwide.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/