FreeMediaOnline.org San Francisco, CA, USA, July 24, 2011 — Leaders of the Ethiopian American community joined by free media advocates are planning a protest rally on Monday, July 25, in front of the Voice of America (VOA) building in Washington, DC amid charges of censorship of VOA news programs to Ethiopia by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). According to Voice of America broadcasters who spoke on the condition that their names not be revealed because they fear reprisals, the BBG has tried to silence VOA journalist David Arnold who encouraged reporting that upset BBG members as well as officials of the Ethiopian regime. VOA journalists have complained of their reports being removed by the management from VOA websites and of being prevented from covering important political events. In a situation reminiscent of Soviet and East European communist media controls, a high-level manager reportedly forbade VOA Africa Division journalists to take written notes during a staff meeting in which complaints about censorship were raised. The BBG is a presidentially-appointed bipartisan group which runs VOA and other government-funded U.S. international broadcasters and is supposed to promote freedom of expression and anti-censorship efforts around the world, but has been accused of negotiating with repressive regimes, terminating VOA radio and TV programs to countries that restrict media freedom, including Russia and China, and firing VOA journalists who specialize in human rights reporting. BBG and VOA managers have been putting pressure on broadcasters to limit political reporting in favor of human-interest stories as a way of persuading various regimes to allow placement of such reports on local stations and websites. Numerous government surveys have rated the BBG as one of the worst-managed federal agencies. Independent journalists fighting censorship abroad have accused the BBG of being confused about its mission.
The latest charges of censorship at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors first surfaced in investigative reports by exiled Ethiopian journalist Abebe Gellaw who was recently a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution in California. He publishes the Ethiopian American news website Addis Voice. His website and many others are banned in Ethiopia.
Addis Voice reported that BBG and VOA officials have tried to silence and punish Voice of America journalist David Arnold, the chief of the Horn to Africa Service, for disclosing the Ethiopian regime’s demands for censoring VOA broadcasts made in Addis Ababa during a recent meeting with visiting BBG members. Since his exile from Ethiopia, Mr. Gellaw’s articles and interviews have been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Guardian, and the Far East Review.
In June 2011, three BBG members appointed by President Obama went to Ethiopia where they met with officials of the Ethiopian regime to discuss their complaints of anti-regime bias in VOA news programs. According to reports in Ethiopian American media, BBG members were presented a list of Ethiopian dissidents, political exiles and foreign critics whom the regime wants to ban from Voice of America radio broadcasts, apparently as a condition for lifting the local jamming of these programs. The names were included in a document describing the objections of the Ethiopian regime to VOA news reports. Addis Voice obtained the document and made it available online.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other media freedom organizations have accused the Ethiopian regimeof 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.
Ethiopian American media reported that BBG officials, who apparently wanted to keep the content of their negotiations in Addis Ababa secret, suspended the chief of the Voice of America Horn of Africa Service David Arnold from his position after he had informed his VOA colleagues about the Ethiopian regime’s demands. BBG officials accused Mr. Arnold, a highly-regarded journalist with decades of reporting experience, of engaging in misinformation but later allowed him to return to work after Ethiopian American media reports brought about a storm of criticism and raised charges of censorship. According to reports in the Ethiopian American media, it is not clear, however, whether he will keep his old job and be safe from further harassment by BBG members and their executive staff.
Phone calls, faxes and emails protesting censorship of the Voice of America news, the dismissal of VOA journalist David Arnold, and the BBG’s plan to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China and to fire journalists specializing in human rights reporting can be directed to the following institutions:
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman; Howard L. Berman, Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, John F. Kerry, Chairman; Richard G. Lugar, Ranking Member
Committee to Protect Journalistsinfo@cpj.org
Reporters Without Bordersclc@rsf.org
Index on Censorshipenquiries@indexoncensorship.org
A VOA report on the visit, which included information disclosed by Mr. Arnold, was removed from the VOA website, reportedly soon after Ethiopian officials complained about it to the BBG staff. Subsequently, VOA executives also banned news coverage from a meeting of Ethiopian political exiles which was held in Washington, D.C. area, suggesting that the BBG mission to Ethiopia continues to have an impact on the bureaucrats who are eager to please BBG members and their executive staff.
Abebe Gellaw reported that the controversy over censorship at the Voice of America took a bizarre twist last week when the Director of Africa Division forbade staffers from taking notes at a meeting she held with employees of the Horn of Africa Service. The manager in charge of VOA programs to Africa told staff to do more people-oriented programming and cut down on the number of stories focused on political affairs.
Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org) president Ted Lipien, who once served as acting associate director of the Voice of America, said that “siding of some of the Broadcasting Board of Governors members with the repressive Ethiopian regime against a highly respected VOA journalist represents an appalling new low in the history of this failed body, which had terminated VOA radio broadcasts in Arabic and Russian, plans to end soon VOA radio and TV programs in Mandarin and Cantonese to China, and has been consistently rated in government-wide surveys as one of the worst-managed federal agencies.” The BBG plans to fire about two dozen Voice of America journalists who specialize in human rights reporting to China after an earlier round of firings at the VOA Russian Service.
“Most BBG members, nominated because of their political loyalty and private sector experience, do not know how to deal with enemies of press freedom and are all too eager to listen to dictators’ complaints against independent journalists without realizing the negative impact of their actions on victims of political repression,” Lipien said.
Free Media Online had opposed President Obama’s nomination of Michael Meehanto the BBG after allegations that he had shoved a reporter who tried to ask a question of his party’s candidate for a political office. According to sources, Meehan was instrumental in the efforts to discipline Mr. Arnold. “BBG members saw Mr. Arnold not as a journalist but as a bureaucratic minion who betrayed them by exposing their naivete,” Lipien said.
Voice of America sources have told Free Media Online that attempts to punish VOA journalists by BBG members and their staff have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the media professionals employed by the U.S. government-funded organizations run by the BBG.
“The BBG’s attempts to discipline Mr. Arnold for doing his job as a journalist is even more outrageous in light of the fact that in 2005 the Ethiopian regime charged five journalists working for the VOA Amharic Service with treason and threatened them with the death penalty,” Lipien said. The charges were later withdrawn after pressure from the U.S. government and human rights NGOs.
“The BBG should be in business of supporting media freedom, not secretly negotiating with suppressors of free press in countries like Ethiopia, Russia, and China, and censoring and punishing its own journalists. The goal of U.S. public diplomacy ought to be reaching out to the victims of political repression abroad, not trying to improve relations with dictatorial regimes. The job of dealing with dictators should be left to professional State Department diplomats, who are hopefully both tough and experienced. The idea that political operatives and private businessmen from the U.S. can somehow persuade dictators to soften their grip on the media had been tried by naive individuals numerous times when the Soviet Union still existed and had always failed while making the life of dissidents and independent journalists more difficult and more dangerous,” Lipien said.
“Sending not one but three BBG members to Ethiopia with a large entourage to negotiate with enemies of press freedom was counterproductive and a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money,” Lipien added. “It made the enemies of press freedom feel good and took away hope from the victims of human rights abuses and the journalists who try to defend them. If it were otherwise, BBG members and executives would not have resorted to censorship and intimidation against their own journalists.”
Lipien suggested that the BBG represents now a greater danger to journalistic independence at the Voice of America than State Department diplomats ever did when VOA was part of the now-defunct United States Information Agency (USIA). This is highly ironic — according to him — because one of the reasons the U.S. Congress created the BBG was to establish a better firewall between VOA journalists and administration officials. “While I worked as a journalist at VOA, lower-level State Department and USIA officials sometimes tried to influence our reporting but these attempts were relatively rare and we were able to ignore most of them before they escalated into a real fight. The BBG, on the other hand, has a much greater direct power over VOA journalists, as Mr. Arnold has found out, and is far less accountable. State Department diplomats were also more aware that it is illegal to interfere with journalistic independence of Voice of America reporters — something that some of the BBG members, some of their executive staffers, and some VOA managers don’t seem to understand, as strange as it may be,” Free Media Online president said.
Lipien also said that compounding the problem is the incompetence of the entrenched BBG executive staff, which feeds the eagerness of BBG members, derived from their private sector experience, to make deals with dictators to establish local program placement in the hope of increasing audience ratings. This is a failed strategy, which the BBG staff also uses to justify eliminating VOA radio and TV broadcasts to countries like China and Russia when their local program efforts inevitably fail, Lipien observed. He listed as examples of the most spectacular failures of the BBG executive staff giving airtime to Holocaust deniers, ending VOA radio programs to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military attack on the Republic of Georgia, their refusal to resume these programs, planning to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China on the anniversary of the establishment of the communist regime in Beijing, and their decision to send BBG members to negotiate with dictators who only stay in power because of their repression of free media.
In a move that is likely to endanger human rights activists, the BBG executive staff has been advocating Internet-only VOA news delivery to China despite Beijing’s effective Internet censorship and its ability to discover identities of individuals trying to access Western news websites. BBG bureaucrats with links to private sector contractors have been making promises of piercing China’s Internet firewall and yet have been unable to protect Voice of America’s own websites from successful attacks by hackers, most likely from China and Russia.
The Ethiopian American organizers of the protest rally against the Broadcasting Board of Governors are warning that the BBG wants to turn the Voice of America into the Voice of China. The rally is scheduled for 9 AM, Monday, July 25, in front of the Voice of America building at 330 Independence Avenue, S.W. in Washington, D.C. just below the Capital Hill. Free Media Online is asking members of Congress to investigate the charges of censorship by BBG members and to protect Voice of America journalist David Arnold and his colleagues from further reprisals.