Partial Victory Declared in Fight Over Censorship at Voice of America

Protest Rally Against Censorship at the Voice of America by the Broadcasting Board of Logo. Truckee, CA, USA, July 28, 2011 –Press freedom advocates and Ethiopian Americans are declaring a partial victory in their fight with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a U.S. government agency, over the censorship of the Voice of America radio programs to Ethiopia. They credit massive protests and a demonstration held Monday in front of the BBG and VOA headquarters in Washington, DC with getting a senior Voice of America official to tell the journalists working for the Horn of Africa VOA Service “to continue their work without any restrictions or self-censorship,” the Ethiopian American news website Addis Voice reported.

Link to the demonstration video 1

Link to the demonstration video 2

VOA Acting Director Steve Redisch

In an apparent attempt at damage control that may place him at odds with some of the BBG members, Voice of America acting director Steve Redisch also reportedly expressed support for the head of Horn of Africa Service David Arnold who was suspended from his position, apparently at the insistence of BBG member Michael Meehan. Before being nominated by President Obama to serve on the BBG, Meehan had been accused of shoving a reporter who was trying to ask a question of a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Free Media Online opposed his nomination as unsuitable for an institution created to support media freedom.

VOA journalist David Arnold

VOA journalist David Arnold

During his meeting with the Horn of Africa Service Redisch did not comment directly on the VOA programs that had already been censored and removed from the website and did not say whether they would be restored. He also did not say why David Arnold was dismissed and whether he would return to his old position. He also did not explain why a senior VOA executive called for less political reporting to Ethiopia after the BBG delegation’s talks with the Ethiopian regime and David Arnold’s dismissal. According to Addis Voice, VOA executives moved Arnold from his old position to VOA’s English Service. Addis Voice also reported that VOA journalists were forbidden from taking written notes at a recent editorial meeting of the Horn of Africa Service.

BBG Member Michael P Meehan

BBG Member Michael P Meehan

According to sources, Meehan was furious when he found out that Arnold told his staff about the demands of the Ethiopian regime to restrict VOA’s human rights reporting to Ethiopia. These demands were made in a meeting the regime officials had in Addis Ababa with Meehan and two other visiting BBG members, Dana Perino and Susan McCue. Subsequently, David Arnold, who had been present at the meeting with the Ethiopian regime officials, was dismissed from his position and VOA news reports based on the information he provided were permanently deleted, a move that violates the VOA Charter, VOA’s own journalistic code, and U.S. government regulations.
BBG executives accused Arnold of spreading misinformation but did not offer any explanation or corrections, which is the usual journalistic practice in news organizations. After Arnold’s dismissal, higher-level managers blocked VOA coverage of an important Ethiopian American political emigre meeting held in the Washington, DC area and were told to limit political reporting in favor of more human-interest news stories.

Free Media Online president Ted Lipien, who once served as VOA’s acting associate director, said that “Mr. Redisch’s short meeting with VOA journalists and his statements are steps in the right direction but still fall short of fully reparing the tremendous damage to VOA’s reputation as a credible news organization and the damage to the reputation of the United States and U.S. public diplomacy created by the spectacle of not just one but three Broadcasting Board of Governors’ members, negotiating secretly with the one of the most repressive regimes in Africa, which not too long ago charged VOA journalists with treason and threatened them with the death penalty.”

Free Media Online president Ted Lipien

Free Media Online president Ted Lipien

“It is outrageous that the Broadcasting Board of Governors executives arranged such a ill-defined trip and then, apparently with active involvement of some of the presidentially-appointed BBG members, dismissed a well-respected VOA journalist and censored news reports in a clear violation of the VOA Charter. BBG officials must apologize to Voice of America listeners, restore Mr. Arnold to his previous position, and stop all attempts at censorship and intimidation of journalists, including forbidding taking notes at meetings, a practice that’s identified with communist and other dictatorships and does not belong in America. The U.S. Congress should investigate this incident and other actions by BBG members and their executive staff, especially the most recent decision to terminate Voice of America radio and TV broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese to China and to fire two dozen VOA China Branch journalists who specialize in human rights reporting.”

Lipien also said that the U.S. Congress should investigate charges, made recently by one of the most respected independent journalists who fight media censorship in Russia at great danger to themselves, that the earlier firing of VOA Russian broadcasters and programming changes imposed by the BBG have resulted in deliberate downplaying of human rights reporting and repetition of pro-Kremlin propaganda on the VOA Russian Service website.

“Censorship, self-censorship and mismanagement at the Voice of America and other broadcasting entities under the BBG’s umbrella is not likely to change until the entire BBG strategic plan, which places emphasis on expanding audiences over the mission of serving informational needs of the most oppressed, is replaced with a plan that the U.S. Congress and American taxpayers can be sure serves America’s interests in promoting freedom and democracy,” Free Media Online president Ted Lipien said.

Lipien pointed out that independent journalists in Russia, human rights defenders in China and Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Americans do not want to see the Voice of America turn into a third-rate cable channel with stories about UFOs and aliens while BBG members travel around the world at U.S. taxpayers’ expense making deals with dictatorial regimes to allow such programs to air locally because they don’t offend anyone and therefore may result in higher audience ratings. This is exactly what an independent journalist in Russia said about the VOA Russian Service website, as reported in an internal Broadcasting Board of Governors program evaluation which was ignored by BBG and VOA executives.

Dana Rohrabacher R-CA reported that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has credibility problems not only among American ethnic communities and free media advocates in the U.S. and abroad, but also increasingly on Capital Hill. In a full bipartisan rebuke to the BBG members and their executive staff, the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs passed by unanimous consent an amendment, proposed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher R-CA, which would block the BBG’s decision to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. A similar action would be required in the U.S. Senate to save these programs. The final outcome is not yet certain and the BBG may yet succeed in stopping VOA radio and TV to China as it did with VOA radio and TV to Russia, despite strong opposition to that move among many members of Congress.

During the debate in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Brad Sherman D-CA, Congressman Connie Mack R-FL, and Congressman Chris Smith, R-NJ said that BBG “bureaucrats” should not be allowed to make the decision to cut VOA radio and TV to China.  Rep. Mack commented on the BBG’s audience research, which claims low audience figures in China for Western radio stations, but which free media advocates describe as completely unreliable: “People in China or Cuba, as you can imagine, will not jump in joy and admit it [listening to Western radio stations]. If you say yes, in China or Cuba, the government will punish you. People are afraid for their own lives. Rep. Smith pointed out that Intermedia, which the BBG uses to conduct audience research, “gets money from the BBG, and then gives money to contractors in Beijing to conduct the survey.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other media freedom organizations have accused the Ethiopian regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in power since 1991, of imprisoning journalists, jamming Voice of America and other foreign broadcasts, and blocking many foreign and independent news websites. Citizens of Russia and China are also denied access to uncensored information by their authoritarian regimes, with which BBG members had likewise tried in the past to negotiate better local placement of U.S. news programs and eventually moved to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to these countries, opting for Internet-only program distribution. This may explain the strong reaction of the Ethiopian American community to the BBG’s latest actions following the visit of the BBG delegation to Ethiopia. The protest organizers were calling for saving the Voice of America from turning into a “Voice of China” and pointed out that the Chinese government has provided the Ethiopian regime with the equipment used to jam VOA and other Western radio broadcasts. The Ethiopian American leaders described the Voice of America Horn of Africa Service as “the only powerful source of uncensored news and views,” while pointing out that attempts at censorship transpired after the BBG visit to Addis Ababa and after the Meles regime reportedly demanded that critics of the regime be banished from participating in VOA programs.


The letter from the Ethiopian America community to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in PDF

Mr. Walter Isaacson, BBG Chairman
Mr. Richard M. Lobo, IBB Director
Mr. Steve Redisch, VOA Acting Director/ Executive Editor,
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)
330 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20237

July 25, 2011

Dear Sirs,

First of all, we, members of the Ethiopian American community, would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the People and Government of the United States for being the leading defender of freedom, justice and democracy throughout the world. We greatly appreciate and admire the crucial works of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose mission is “to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multi-media communication of accurate, objective, and balanced news, information, and other programming about America and the world audience overseas.”

We are writing today to request an investigation into reports of censorship at the Voice of America Horn of Africa section, which has been serving Ethiopians as the only powerful source of uncensored news and views. What is more worrying is the fact that the difficulties facing the VOA Horn of Africa section transpired after the Meles regime reportedly demanded VOA to banish a list of critics from appearing on its programs and coverage.

We find it appropriate and timely to quote from a speech H.E. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, who happens to be one of the esteemed members of BBG, delivered last month at the African Union, Addis Ababa. Secretary Clinton rightly told African leaders:

“The status quo is broken; the old ways of governing are no longer acceptable; it is time for leaders to lead with accountability, treat their people with dignity, respect their rights, and deliver economic opportunity. And if they will not, then it is time for them to go.”

As you very well know, it is impossible to hold leaders accountable and guarantee dignity and human rights without freedom of expression and free press. The struggle of the Ethiopian people to create a nation founded on freedom, democracy, dignity, rule of law, transparency and accountability has been severely hampered by the relentless efforts by the ruling TPLF/EPRDF in Ethiopia to silence every little voice of dissent and critical view. Only within the last five years, scores of newspapers have been closed down, many journalists have been jailed and nearly one hundred of them have been forced into exile. In addition, the regime blocks news websites and blogs and intensively jams international broadcasts.
The Ethiopian government is one of the most anti-free press regimes in the world lined up and in league with Burma, Cuba, Iran and others. This has been consistently reported by credible human rights
organizations, the State Department annual human rights report and free press advocates such as the Committee to Protest Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Boarders and International Press Institute.

Having said that, we would like to bring to your attention recent developments that have created a cloud of concern and anxiety among Americans of Ethiopian origin as well as the Ethiopian Diaspora. The Voice of America means a lot to the majority of Ethiopians who have depended on its balanced, objective and reliable reporting and programs.

It is to be remembered that three BBG Governors, Susan McCue, Dana Perino and Michael Meehan, along with four senior VOA staff members, travelled to Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Nigeria between
June 21 to 28. On 23rd June, Mr. David Arnold , a member of the delegation and former Horn of Africa chief, appeared on VOA Amharic and shared some important information to listeners. Mr. Arnold disclosed that the government of Ethiopia had demanded VOA to ban a long list of vocal critics.

In what appears to be a very unusual move, Mr. Arnold was suspended from his position, though has now been reinstated. According to reports, there was no factual error in his statement. However, the audio as well as text archive of the report has been removed from VOA’s official website without any corrections, explanations or apologies. We would like an investigation into this matter and urge BBG to have the deleted files be resorted.

On 10th July 2011, a key public meeting, which was focused on the future of Ethiopia, was held at the Sheraton National Hotel, in Arlington, Virginia. The first of its kind, the meeting was jointly organized by Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front and Alliance for Liberty Equality and Justice in Ethiopia (ALEJE).

We understand that VOA decided not to cover the event after it was scheduled to be aired on VOA Amharic service on Monday, July 11. It also emerged that VOA has decided to give less coverage for
Diaspora and political issues. We called upon BBG not only to clarify VOA’s stand in light of the missions of VOA.

It has also come to our attention that an audio archive file that contains critical view on current problems within VOA Horn of Africa section aired on July 18 in Amharic was also deleted. We would like to urge BBG to investigate the matter and explain why these kinds of damaging measures that can dent the confidence that millions of Ethiopians have on VOA.

It is to be remembered that VOA has been a target of the Meles regime. In the aftermath of the 2005 massacre, five journalists working for VOA Amharic service were charged with high treason, “genocide” and outrage against the constitution by the Meles regime. Though the charges were dropped, it clearly showed, once again, that the Meles regime is intolerant to the free flow of information.
The jamming efforts of all independent broadcasts including the VOA have intensified after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters in March 2010 the following:

“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. “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.”

With the support of the Chinese government, the regime has now built a capacity to jam shortwave radio and satellite TV signals. VOA is a victim of these repressive efforts.

We do not want VOA to be hijacked by the agenda of Ethiopia’s repressive regime. Neither do we wish to see VOA lose its vitality and service as a truly independent alternative media to the people of Ethiopia.

It is with high regard for BBG and VOA in particular, we humbly request Your Excellencies to ensure and guarantee that VOA continues to give the vital service it has been providing to the silenced people of Ethiopia consistent with its mission, the First Amendment of the United States constitution and America’s
cherished values of freedom and democracy.

We look forward to hearing from you very soon.

With highest regards,

Tamagne Beyene, Artist and Human Rights Activist
On behalf of Ethiopian American Civic, Human Rights, and Free Press Support Groups

The Letter of the Voice of America Acting Director Steve Radisch to Addis Voice

“We are the Voice of America”

By Steve Redish

I’ve been asked to react to the accuracy of the reporting about the situation involving VOA’s Horn of Africa service, so I decided now is a good time to clear up some misconceptions that have evolved over the past few weeks.

Voice of America’s Horn of Africa service will not be shying away from reporting on Ethiopian politics. Freedom House rates the Ethiopian media as “not free,” and our audiences there can rely on VOA to provide accurate, objective and comprehensive news and information about their government. VOA will provide an array of voices and opinions to allow Ethiopians to make their own decisions about what to believe and who to trust. That is our job and the job of a free media.

As well, our audiences expect VOA to provide news and information that helps them make everyday decisions about their lives. Right now, 4.5 million Ethiopians are impacted by severe drought and famine. VOA has a responsibility to its audience to provide health news and information so people can learn ways to survive under such conditions; technology news that might mitigate the situation, opening new channels of communication; business and economics information to know how much bread costs and what people can do to earn enough to buy it; education reporting that can help people find opportunities to better their lives. These are core reporting topics from a full-service international broadcaster that audiences all across VOA’s language services request most and have come to expect.

The Government of Ethiopia has presented VOA with complaints about our Horn of Africa broadcasting. We are investigating those complaints as we would any complaints from any individual or government, including the US government. When the independent review of those complaints is completed, we will present them to the Ethiopian government, and then make them public. We take seriously the responsibilities outlined in the VOA charter to serve as a reliable source of news; to be accurate, objective and comprehensive; present significant American thoughts and institutions in a balanced and comprehensive way; and present U.S. policies clearly and effectively, including responsible discussion and opinion on these policies. VOA makes decisions about news coverage based on what we believe our audiences need, not based on what any government or special interest group wants. We also make those decisions based on resources available. Budget constraints are an economic and editorial reality. But that should not be confused with self-censorship. We will not censor ourselves nor allow ourselves to be censored. We’re not the voice of the opposition or the Diaspora or the government. We are the Voice of America and will continue to provide news and information that meet our highest standards.

Steve Redisch
VOA Acting Director/Executive Editor

SourcedFrom Sourced from: Free Media Online