The VOA Saga – Is the United States bending for dictators? By Ephrem Madebo
When the founding fathers of the United States laid down the foundation of the nation, they clearly foresaw the universal role of the new republic; hence, they created a powerful model of liberty, justice, and democracy, not only for the newly born republic; but for the whole world. The founding fathers understood that liberty, justice and democracy were America’s fundamental values in everything they do; therefore, they committed themselves to these values and passed them on to the next generation.
During the First and Second World War and the Korean War, millions of young Americans gave their life to the values bestowed upon them by the founding fathers. During the Cold War, generation of American leaders like D. Eisenhower, J.F. Kennedy, L.B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Regan lived for the cause of mankind and never compromised America’s fundamental values. All in all, for the most part of the 20th century, the United States as a nation has been the beacon of freedom and democracy for the world.
When the survival of Europe was threatened by Communism, the United States spoke up forcefully, and I’m sure no force was as powerful and as effective as the voices of “Radio Free Europe” and Radio Liberty in putting the last nail on the coffin of communism. Thomas Paine, the father of American Revolution and American pamphleteer said: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
Thomas Paine was one of the founding fathers of our nation not because he led the continental army like General Washington, or not because he authored the declaration of independence like Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Paine was not even one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence or the constitution. Thomas Paine shares the title “Founding Fathers” with these great men because of his “Common Sense” that captivated the heart and soul of many Americans during the Revolutionary War. A sincere question that I want to pose to this generation of American leaders is- Where is that common sense today? Is the value of freedom and justice diminishing in you, or are you diminishing these values?
When I finished college some 25 years ago, I remember; I used to work for the then Ethiopian government and pay taxes. These were the only two things that I still remember. Don’t ask me – what about politics, economics, and of course what the government does with my tax money. Well, I cannot read about these issues because no one would dare to write about them, and I can’t discuss them with my friends because discussing “who does what” in the government is an automatic jail sentence [sometimes eternal jail]. Yes, my country had and still has newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, but the sole task of these media outlets is to glorify the regime in power and tell the people how good their awfully bad government is. Therefore, during this dark time, when we wanted the truth, I and most Ethiopians looked for outside sources. In fact, most Ethiopians depended and still depend on two radio stations for the truth, the Voice of America (VOA) and Deutshe Welle. Today, twenty years after I came to the United States, I still recall the comforting voices of VOA Amharic correspondents such as Getahun Tamrat and Tizita Belachew. To most Ethiopians of my generation, the voices of Getahun and Tizita are not just voices on the radio. Like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, they were the voices of hope and the voices of freedom.
When I was in high school and college, I remember Colonel Mengistu’s regime had many armed enemies inside and outside the country and one of its archenemies was the TPLF guerilla led by Meles Zenawi, but Colonel Mengistu thought he was immured behind Soviet made migs & tanks; therefore, his most feared enemy was the unarmed VOA. Surprisingly, today; 20 years after the fall of Colonel Mengistu’s regime; VOA is still the most feared enemy of the Ethiopian regime. When the current Prime Minister’s ethnic party, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was fighting Colonel Mengistu’s Marxist dictatorship, it enjoyed the unbiased professional journalism and the uninterrupted broadcasting support of the VOA. In fact, if there is any group on earth that directly benefited from the freedom voices of the VOA, it is the TPLF. So why is a group that benefited the most from the VOA when it was fighting a dictator, now uses enormous resources to choke the VOA? Or, why is PM Meles Zenawi fighting the same institution that his nemeses fought 20 years ago?
Recently, as recently as last week, the VOA suspended its Horn of Africa chief, Mr. David Arnold; and this week, in a very dramatic shift of events, the VOA reinstated Mr. Arnold. I see deeply troubling multiple events here. Why was Mr. Arnold suspended? Who suspended him? Is the VOA really censoring itself in defense of a ruthless African dictator? I’m a tax payer and I believe my tax money finances VOA’s broadcasting to Ethiopia and it also pays the salary of Mr. Arnold and whoever made the decision to suspend him. I do understand that, as a tax payer, I can’t guide or channel my tax money only to my areas of interest, but I can always fight a constitutional fight to stop the funding of dictatorship. I hate when my tax money is used to censor American radio stations that inform 85 million fellow Ethiopians.
This week, on his written message to Addis Voce, VOA’s acting Director and Executive Editor, Mr. Steve Redisch said: “There have been inaccurate reports about the tone and substance of an official meeting on June 22 between members of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors and Ethiopian Communication Affairs Minister Bereket Simon”. Mr. Redisch, did you say inaccurate reports? Are you telling me that the report aired on June 23 on VOA Amharic Program and appeared on its website [eventually removed] was inaccurate? This is either a joke of the week or a cover up to appease the Ethiopian dictator. You better tell me which one it is!
How can such a distinguished group of professionals go on a government mission and produce a report that includes specific demands and names of individuals form three different continents if the demands and the names were never mentioned during their mission? Mr. Redisch, you can come to elementary schools in my county, randomly pick three kids, and send them on a mission to Ethiopia; I am more than 100% sure, the VOA & the Ethiopian regime may, but the children will not make such a mistake. I read Mr. Arnold’s report on the VOA website and listened to his interview on the broadcast and podcast [VOA]. I don’t think Mr. Arnold did anything wrong other than summarizing the demand of the Ethiopian regime and mention some of the names included in the demand. I remember, after calling some three or four names, he said the list goes on. This simply tells me that there is a larger list that Mr. Arnold knows.
As an American, and most importantly, as a human being that seeks the truth, I want both Mr. Redisch and Mr. Arnold to tell me whose story is correct. I’m sure one of you is dead wrong. I also want to make it clear that I and many other interested Ethio-Americans will invoke our FOIA right to view reports, documents, or name list on this issue [if there exits any].
As an Executive Editor of the VOA, I’m sure Mr. Redisch is aware of the rich history of Radio Free Europe (RFU) and Radio Liberty (RL). These two radio stations did not bend their broadcasting polices for Khrushchev, Ceausescu, Brezhnev or Eric Honnecker. In fact, RFU & RL played a vital role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Unification of Germany, and the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe. Likewise, the VOA played a decisive role in bringing down Ethiopia’s brutal military regime. Unfortunately, Ethiopia still languishes under dictatorship.
In March 2010, PM Meles Zenawi compared the VOA Amharic program to Rwanda’s Radio “des Mille Collines”, and vowed that his administration would jam VOA broadcasting signals. Today, VOA radio broadcasts are heard in Ethiopia at the mercy of Zeanwi’s regime. I wonder why and how one of the poorest countries on earth that gets the bulk of its financial aid from the United States is able to bully the United States? It is also perplexing why the United States allows its own money to be used to jam its own radio signals. What is going on?
Well, actually this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there are two things that are more mystifying and hard to believe. The first is Berket Simon’s alleged request [to the VOA] to ban selected opposition figures from any of VOA’s programs that are broadcasted to Ethiopia. The message of Bereket’s request is very simple – if VOA wants uninterrupted transmission to Ethiopia, it must reduce itself to Ethiopia’s propaganda machine which is – Radio Ethiopia. The other absurdity is VOA’s action of suspending its Horn of Africa chief, David Arnold and removing his report form the VOA website… all these to appease the dictator in Addis Ababa.
I remember, shortly after 9/11, when the VOA broadcasted excerpts of Mullah Omar’s interview disregarding the US State Department’s opposition both to interview the leader of the Taliban and broadcast his interview. So why is this same VAO bending its time-honored broadcasting principles to conciliate a dictator that kills his own people? One of the founding principles that govern the Voice of America broadcasting says the following: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive’. This principle has benefited the Ethiopian people to whom the VOA is the only source of accurate, objective, and comprehensive information. The freedom of speech and freedom of information are values we Ethiopians appreciate learning from the United States, but if the Voice of America is censoring itself- who else will teach us these values? North Korea, Iran, or China?