Horn of Africa chief suspended over critical comments By Abebe Gellaw
The Voice of America (VOA) has been accused of censoring itself and suspending its Horn of Africa Chief, David Arnold, over fallout with the Ethiopian government. The suspension of Mr. Arnold was directly related to his comments in a news report that was broadcast on VOA Amharic service on June 23rd, informed sources told Addis Voice.
Mr. Arnold was part of a seven-member delegation headed by three Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), Susan McCue, Dana Perino, and Michael Meehan, who met officials in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Southern Sudan from June 21 to June 28. BBG, an agency of the US government, oversees all of its civilian international broadcasts in 59 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 165 million people across the world.
Arnold had revealed that the Ethiopian government demanded VOA to deny platform to its vocal critics as a precondition to cooperate with VOA. The blacklist, drawn up by the Government Communication Affairs Minister, Bereket Simon, included Prof. Pawlos Milkeas, Prof. Beyene Petros, Dr. Merera Gudina, Getachew Metaferia, Dr. Berhanu Nega, Girma Mogess, former Minister of Defense Seye Abraha and the Eritrean Minister of Information, Ali Abdou. “The list goes on,” Arnold told VOA Amharic.
He had said that the mission of the BBG delegation was “to make sure that they address some of the issues in Ethiopia concerning free press because for many years the government has objected to some of our broadcasts.” He also pointed out that the BBG governors discussed with Ethiopian officials the constant jamming of Voice of America transmissions in Amharic, Oromiffa and Tigrigna.
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.
It emerged that the meeting between the BBG delegation and Ethiopian government officials was fraught with problems and tension as Mr. Simon and his cohorts have reportedly launched a scathing attack against the media organization in a 41-page long litany of complaints about VOA broadcasts.
Mr. 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 Arnold’s comments on sensitive issues that they felt needed clearance.
The renowned Ethiopian artiste Tamagne Beyene is one of first people to notice the removal of all the contents of the June 23rd VOA Amharic broadcast from the online archive page. He says that the measure taken by VOA is unjustifiable and a pure act of censorship.
Tamagn asked VOA to come out of the closet and tell its listeners the truth why the news was deleted and a highly experienced staff member was suspended for reporting the truth.
“This is a classic case of censorship and shooting the messenger. If this is not censorship, what else can VOA call it?” he asked.
“This case of suspension and censorship has shocked so many people at VOA. Some people are wondering how a professional journalist like Arnold with over three decades of experience can be suspended and censored to assuage the anger of a dictatorial regime in Ethiopia,” said one of the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Arnold only reported the truth accurately. I am personally confused to witness politics overriding the First Amendment, which is as one of the pillars of the Constitution of the United States,” the source added.
“The Minister [Bereket Simon] is willing to consider any new initiatives but he is going to wait to see if we change the way we broadcast,” Arnold had said.
Arnold had dismissed the demand as contrary to the mission of VOA and basic principles of free press. According to him, Simon, not only complained about the contents of VOA broadcasts but also pointed out that the Ethiopian government had problems with some of the journalists working for VOA. During the 2005 election turmoil in Ethiopia, the government charged five VOA journalists, along with local journalists and opposition leaders, with high treason. The charges were dropped in the course of the trial under pressure from the U.S. government.
During their visit, the delegation posted pictures and brief accounts of their experience on a dedicated blog, VOA on the Road Africa. In Ethiopia, the delegation that included four VOA staffers including the English to Africa Chief, Sonya Laurence Green, talked to senior Ethiopian government officials on issues related to the persistent jamming of VOA its transmissions and press freedom violations.
Alemayehu Gebremariam, a constitutional law attorney and professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, says: “Disclosure of a few names from an illegal list of names prepared by a foreign government to be blacklisted by the VOA presents no basis for legal or administrative action against him.
“Telling the truth in a news broadcast is not a crime. That is what Mr. Arnold has done. Journalists are censured and punished for reporting the truth in places like Iran and Ethiopia,” he noted.
Prof. Gebremariam further pointed out that the First Amendment guaranteed American citizens and inhabitants of the U.S. the absolute right to publicly criticize, denounce, condemn and berate any government institution or leader with impunity.
He said: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, which simply means that no government official or institution has the power to restrict, censor, suppress, restrain, muzzle or blackball any American citizen or inhabitant of the U.S. from exercising their right to free speech or restrain the independent press from performing its institutional functions.”
In March 2010, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly threatened to jam VOA. “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda,” Zenawi told reporters in Addis Ababa.
“We have to know before we make the decision to jam, whether we have the capacity to do it. But I assure you if they assure me at some future date that they have the capacity to jam it, I will give them the clear guideline to jam it,” he added.
The government of Ethiopia has now developed a capacity to jam shortwave and satellite TV broadcasts. A few weeks ago, the Ethiopian Satellite Television issued a statement urging the government of China to stop providing technology and technical support that has enabled the Meles regime to jam its transmissions to Ethiopia.
In October 2010, Human Rights Watch released a special report, Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repressions in Ethiopia, that accused western governments of complicity in repressions by turning a blind eye to the fact that “development aid flows through, and directly supports, a virtual one-party state with a deplorable human rights record.”
The Meles regime, which is a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, receives over 3 billion dollars in aid annually from Western donors. One-third of the money comes from the coffers of the U.S. treasury in the form of relief and development aid.
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Abebe Gellaw can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org