Evidence of Things Unseen: Secrets Revealed at the Voice of America
By Annette C. Scheckler
Nov. 08 2009
In his 1999 State of the Union address, President Clinton called upon Congress to support Radio Democracy for Africa (RDA), an initiative to enhance VOA broadcasting to Africa to promote the emerging democratisation process. The President intends to entrust millions of taxpayer dollars to an institution that is in need of serious self-examination. I draw this conclusion from having spent one year as Chief of the Horn of Africa Service.
The Voice of America (VOA) is hidden inside a rundown federal building situated in South West Washington, DC. Identified by a small, nondescript sign on the Health and Human Services building, VOA is a virtual Tower of Babel, broadcasting in fifty-three languages around the globe. I spent one year in this building as the Chief of the Horn of Africa Service. During my short tenure, I learned some secrets hidden inside those walls-secrets well known to the US Information Agency, the US Department of State, the National Security Council, the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, and members of the Ethiopian political exile community world wide. The corruption of VOA’s mission within the Horn of Africa Service is symptomatic of the larger organisation that overall has failed to reinvent itself to meet the complex challenges of a new international order - defined in part by the revolution in global telecommunications.
Indeed, I have witnessed how those with the vision and intellectual capital to act as architects of such a transition are systematically hounded out by a punishing bureaucracy intent on preserving the status quo. US broadcasting to Africa has considerable merit. Indeed, the Amharic Service alone has an audience of 24% of the adult population in Ethiopia, the highest currently documented national listening rate for VOA in any one country, and represents approximately 7.3 million weekly listeners. In many parts of Africa, there is a critical need for reliable news and information and this arguably can play an important role in the continued democratisation process. However, my experience within VOA’s Africa Division clearly indicates that VOA might not be the place to invest millions of dollars with serious reforms. Rather, the American people might be better served to invest US resources in a public corporation that functions more along the lines of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
The Horn of Africa Cauldron
Even the most casual observer of Ethiopian politics knows that the fratricidal wars that begun during the turbulent decade of the 1970s are not over. The roots of the conflict are in the Ethiopian student movement and the resulting political organisations that were formed based on these differences. These organisations include the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), and later on, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Their rivalries continue to haunt Ethiopian politics with a legacy of mistrust, suspicion and bitter divisiveness that is all too evident on the contemporary political landscape.
The victory of the TPLF and its coalition of forces, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), over the brutally oppressive regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, has only deepened the antagonism of the TPLF’s rival political organisations. Sadly, today’s Ethiopian political opposition espouses an empty rhetoric that is overwhelmingly lacking in basic principles of tolerance, inclusion and democratic pluralism. Rather, much of the Ethiopian opposition appears to be advocating little more than removing the TPLF and replacing it with yet another hegemonic political organisation.
One of the most powerful weapons available to the Ethiopian opposition has been the Voice of America. Begun in 1982 to counter Mengistu’s monopolistic control of the media and, by extension, Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa, US foreign policy-makers created the Amharic Service. The role of VOA’s Amharic Service, later the Horn of Africa Service, played and continues to play an important role in the politics of that region. Whether or not this role is positive or negative depends on where you are sitting. I will argue he that, for the United States government, the role played by VOA broadcasting to that region, has been detrimental not only to US foreign policy interests, but to the credibility of the VOA, and the long-term peace, stability, and democratisation of a highly volatile and strategic region of Africa. The VOA’s Horn of Africa Service was and continues to be captured and held hostage by an Ethiopian opposition with a narrow partisan political agenda solely fixated on discrediting the EPRDF government.
Many VOA broadcasters in the Horn of Africa Service are proponents of this agenda and close ranks within the organisation to keep this dirty little secret from being exposed. VOA management, despite protests lodged by three US ambassadors to Ethiopia, a revolving cadre of State Department desk officers, and various high level National Security advisors, refuse to acknowledge the travesty that is being funded at US taxpayers expense.
What is the Voice of America?
The Voice of America is a unique federal institution. It is a government-run media, largely unknown to the American public, and, until October 1, 1999, under the administrative umbrella of the United States Information Agency (USIA). The VOA, then called the Foreign Information Service, began its history in 1942 during the World War II under the Office of War Information. At the end of the war, VOA was transferred to the State Department. For the next several years, the VOA faced an uncertain future with a reduced budget and an unclear mission. By 1948, however, the VOA became viewed by Congress as an effective weapon to counter the Soviet Union’s increasing use of radio broadcasting in its widening global spheres of influence. In 1953, following an ugly attack waged by Senator Joseph McCarthy on so-called 'subversives' during the infamous 'hearings,' the VOA became part of the newly organised U.S. Information Agency. decades later, deep scars remain on VOA’s institutional culture -- a culture that eschews transparency and accountability for secretiveness and subterfuge.
VOA’s Schizophrenic Mandate
Most VOA journalists ascribe to the credo of providing accurate, objective and comprehensive news. Yet, their work is understandably replete with contradictions and their resulting tensions. On the one hand, VOA is part of the foreign policy establishment. On the other hand, it’s a media organisation. Dial 202-619-4700, VOA’s main number, and you hear, 'This is the United States Information Agency, a federal foreign affairs agency.' However, VOA, as primarily a newsgathering institution, tries to maintain its independence from the State Department and its autonomy even within USIA. One of its concessions to the foreign policy establishment includes an editorial that is separated by a musical jingle from the news and clearly states that the editorial reflects the views of the United States government. These editorials, produced by VOA’s policy office, must be cleared by the US Department of State. Congress recently enshrined in law the airing of the editorials on VOA.
In addition, VOA managers holding security clearance have access to read confidential cables from embassies located in target areas. These cables contain intelligence information that is not to be used directly in the broadcasts, but rather provides a guide for language Service Chiefs to be aware of events in their target areas. Out of principle, some Service Chiefs prefer not to read the material. Many, however, do.
Occasionally, the State Department will attempt to exert pressure on VOA top managers not to report or to delay reporting certain events that are perceived to have consequences for US foreign policy. The matter then goes to the VOA Director or VOA’s governing board for a decision. In most cases, the VOA defends the organisation’s autonomy from foreign policy institutions on grounds of journalistic purity. This tendency to ward off criticism from the foreign policy establishment has grown over the years. Yet, as I saw in my own experience, the VOA’s zeal to defend its autonomy and authority can allow a gross abuse of that authority - quite distinct from its lofty journalistic credo.
Who’s Minding the Store?
According to VOA’s Programming Handbook: VOA is alert to, and rejects, efforts by any special interest group - foreign or domestic - to use its broadcasts as a platform. Yet, the broadcast language services are easily vulnerable to manipulation for partisan political purposes, and it takes knowledgeable management to resist this.
In order to maintain quality broadcasting, the VOA recruits staff who at a minimum, are fluent in the broadcast language. For example, within the VOA’s Africa Division, the staff of international radio broadcasters (IRBs) in the Hausa Service are primarily Nigerians. The Swahili Service is dominated by Tanzanians. The Central Africa Service are Kinyarwanda and Kirundi speakers from Rwanda and Burundi. The IRBs in the French to Africa Branch are predominantly from Francophone Africa, sprinkled with French nationals and a lone Italian fluent in French. In the Portugese to Africa Service, there are three IRBs from Lusophone Africa (Angola and Mozambique) and three Portugese. The exception is the English to Africa Branch where the majority of IRBs are American-born, many of whom have never even travelled to Africa.
What does this mean? Is it possible for a particular language service to reflect the views of a foreign political group with its own partisan agenda to promote on VOA airwaves? It’s not only possible but it happens. In the early 1980s, the Portugese to Africa Service was dominated by former Portugese white settlers from Lusophone Africa. These retornados, as the white settlers who fled Angola and Mozambique at independence are known in Portuguese, were openly hostile to the new independent states. Their programming unabashedly supported the South African-backed Renamo Movement in Mozambique. In addition, a vicious smear campaign was waged by some of these staff members against the American-born academic Service Chief who alerted the agency of these serious problems. Events finally came to head when the FBI discovered that one of these VOA staff members - a Portugese national - was a paid agent of South Africa’s apartheid government. The VOA staff member confessed to espionage and was deported within seventy-two hours.
VOA’s Horn of Africa Service: Captured and Held Hostage by the Ethiopian Opposition
The Horn of Africa Service has gone through four distinct phases since its creation. Phase 1 (1982-1986) programming stressed an anti-Mengistu, anti-Soviet political agenda that coincided with American foreign policy during that period. The leadership of the first Service Chief held in check the more parochial partisan agenda that later emerged. Phase 2 (1986-1996) broadened its anti-Mengistu agenda to include a markedly partisan anti-EPRDF bias, focusing mainly on discrediting the TPLF, and anti-Eritrea independence. The Service Chief was an Ethiopian-born, former EPRP member. During this phase, the Amharic Service was a powerful weapon of the pro-unity, anti-EPRDF Ethiopian opposition movement in the US and Europe. In Phase 3 (1996-1998), the Ethiopian-born, ex-EPRP Service Chief was removed and transferred to the Central Africa Service and two 15 minute segments in Tigrinya and Afan Oromo were added to the Amharic program. During Phase 4 (1997-1998), I served as the Service Chief. The three language programs (Amharic, Tigrinya and Afan Oromo) became increasing Balkanisated and the addition of a new program, 'Democratic Forum,' significantly raised the stakes for controlling editorial content.
|Phase 1||1982-1986||US-born former Peace Corps||
|Phase 2||1986-1996||Ethiopian-born former EPRP||
|Phase 3||July 1996- Dec. 1997||Brief interim service chief (US-born) with no knowledge of Ethiopia||
|Phase 4||Dec. 1997- Dec. 1998||US-born academic specialising in Ethiopian politics||
The Anti-Mengistu Phase (1982-1986)
In 1982, the Amharic Service was added to VOA’s Africa Division. The first Service Chief was a former US Peace Corps volunteer with a basic fluency in the language and a rudimentary knowledge of Ethiopian politics. The newly hired IRBs could be divided into two camps: two persons who had been well-known members of the EPRP and the rest primarily US-educated with no apparent political baggage from the student movement or Ethiopia’s revolutionary period. During this initial phase of operation, the focus of the service was to counter Mengistu’s information monopoly with news of international events and targeted reports about the various 'fronts' waging war against the regime. Staff tensions were low during this period given the newness of the service, the leadership of the first Service Chief and the single-minded focus of an anti-Mengistu agenda that was shared by all. Predictably, there were formal complaints lodged by the Ethiopian government about VOA broadcasts, but these were more or less dismissed by VOA in the absence of any real pressure exerted by the State Department or the USIA, or Congress which shared the anti-Mengistu agenda.
The Anti-TPLF/EPRDF Phase (1986-1996)
This period was the most notoriously partisan phase of programming. Several important changes took place in the service that had serious implications for content of the Amharic program. The first Service Chief left VOA for greener pastures in southern California. VOA appointed a new Service Chief chosen from the ranks of the existing Amharic staff. A former EPRP member, the new Service Chief waged a war not only against Mengistu but, according to officials of the EPRDF government, the Eritrean government, and VOA staff, he aggressively pursued a more narrow partisan agenda. Programming began to reflect his increasingly anti-TPLF and anti EPLF/Eritrean independence bias. Second, five senior Amharic staff, all US-educated, often in dispute over the partisan direction of programming, left the Service! This exodus of highly qualified and experienced staff should have alerted VOA upper management of the gravity of problems within that service. The Service Chief recruited former employees of Ethiopia’s nefarious Ministry of Information, recent émigrés to the United States, to replace them. Third, the military victories of the TPLF and EPLF during the latter part of the 1980s intensified the need for other Ethiopian political opposition groups to discredit the TPLF and EPLF as legitimate alternatives to Mengistu’s regime.
The new Service Chief began his tenure in 1986 and held that position for the next ten years. Formerly a broadcaster with Ethiopia’s Voice of the Gospel, he was later working for Deutsche Welle when he joined the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and went back to Ethiopia. He spent the latter part of the 1970s in Asimba, Tigray and later Gondar where he taught Marxism/Leninism in the EPRP’s Cadre School.
The political past of employees in an institution like VOA is not the issue here. Many émigrés have engaged in politics of one kind or another, and VOA has often recruited staff from the ranks of exile communities. However, it would be naive not to understand that some find it difficult to leave behind the old wounds, passions and bitterness at events and people who have forced them into exile. In the Portugese to Africa Service, for example, individuals from a once privileged group continued the fight against black self-rule in southern Africa. In the Amharic service, former EPRP members still carry grudges from their bloody war with the TPLF.
The EPRP had emerged in 1975 as an underground movement committed to organising a political party made up of a coalition of the middle class, urban working class and peasants. Avowedly Marxist-Leninist, the goal of the EPRP was to form a socialist peoples' government created by a popular national assembly which would draft a constitution and hold elections. From November 1977 to May 1978, the EPRP engaged in urban guerrilla warfare against Mengistu and its civilian allies, most notably MEISON. Responding to the government’s 'Red Terror' campaign, the EPRP fought back tenaciously, losing thousands of its members to Mengistu’s soldiers assisted by MEISON and well-armed neighbourhood militia. By mid-1978, the EPRP left Addis Ababa to continue the war in the rural areas of Tigray and Gondar. Although initially operating in co-operation with the TPLF, theoretical disagreements over the primacy of the class struggle versus the national struggle eventually created open warfare between the two organisations in the TPLF’s ethnic home base of Tigray. The TPLF fought the EPRP and won, routing EPRP’s army out of Tigray to North West Gondar. By early 1980, after some initial success in organising a peasant militia, most of EPRP’s members crossed the border into Sudan to join the tens of thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees fleeing the war.
Hence, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Amharic Service consisted of two main camps: former EPRP members and former employees of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Information. The EPRP had fought a war with the TPLF and lost. The former employees of the Ministry of Information, all who identified themselves as ethnic Amhara, opposed the TPLF from the perspective of ethnic politics. Moreover, the Service Chief himself, while a member of the EPRP, was an active participant in the war with the TPLF. Hence, both groups, for different reasons, worked together to produce programs that compromised an accurate and balanced reporting of the victories won by EPRDF forces and the EPLF over Mengistu’s army.
By 1991, the new EPRDF transition government made clear to the US Department of State its objections to VOA Amharic broadcasts. Their target was the Service Chief, whom they accused of promoting a personal political agenda against the TPLF based on his role in the EPRP during the bloody war that was fought between EPRP and TPLF in the late 1970s.
From 1991-1996, three US ambassadors to Ethiopia - Ambassadors Mark Bass, Irvin Hicks and David Shinn - sent cables to USIA protesting the Amharic service’s broadcasts alleging a strong bias in its reports. Indeed, Ambassador Hicks admitted freely that his goal was to close the Amharic service. These protests were supported by the State Department’s Africa Bureau and various USIA Ethiopia desk officers. The situation became serious enough that hearings were held by VOA’s Board of Governors to close down VOA’ s Amharic Service.
In 1996, to avoid embarrassment to the institution, VOA’s Board of Governors enacted a compromise: VOA leadership asked the Amharic Service Chief to resign from the Amharic Service, and put him in charge of the newly created Central Africa Service. In addition, the Amharic program was reduced to ½ daily broadcast and two fifteen minute programs were added in Tigrinya and Afan Oromo.
The original proposal made to VOA’s Board by then VOA Director Jeffrey Cowan was to have an Amharic and Tigrinya broadcast, thus reflecting the official language of Ethiopia and the newly independent Eritrea. This was to offset the charges that VOA broadcasts were pro-unity/anti-EPLF/anti-Eritrean independence. A precedent for this was set with the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Croatian and Bosnian were added to the Serbian Service to acknowledge the newly independent states of Croatia and Bosnia. Needless to say, there was a great deal of political naivety in proposing Tigrinya as an additional language. Regardless of the official intent, it would be interpreted in Ethiopia as a gesture to the ruling TPLF. This was reinforced by the addition of yet another language. The out-going Amharic Service Chief managed to convince VOA’s upper management to also add Afan Oromo, hence subverting the original intent - recognition of Eritrean sovereignty - and rendering Tigrinya an ethnic language.
This is emphatically not to say that Afan Oromo is not an important language. The Oromo people make up a plurality of the Ethiopian population. Beginning in the 1970s, the use of Afan Oromo in official public discourse has produced important developments in the language, including a growing body of poetry, plays and novels. However, the point here is that Tigrinya was proposed as a remedy for the anti-Eritrea partisanship of the Amharic service. By adding an additional language, the intent is obfuscated with an ethnic component that quickly evolved into a Balkanisation of the Service.
Translation Service Phase (1996-1998)
For the next eighteen months, the Amharic service essentially translated news and information scripts issued by VOA’s Central English Service. Two senior Amharic staff, one fluent in Tigrinya and the other conversant in Afan Oromo, became editors of the two new language programs.
The Ethiopian government, even after the forced resignation of the former Service Chief and the addition of Tigrinya and Afan Oromo, still refused to be interviewed on the VOA as the profound lack of trust in the VOA continued. In addition, a volley of cables sent to the VOA from the US embassy in Addis protesting the lack of balance on various programs forced VOA management, particularly in the absence of a Service Chief, to prohibit original material from being broadcast.
After ten years of leadership, the former Service Chief left a legacy of personal animosity, hostility and complete lack of professionalism within the Horn of Africa Service. This was compounded by a new equation of ethnic politics with the addition of the two new languages. VOA briefly installed a temporary Service Chief who had no knowledge of the cauldron of politics in the Horn of Africa. He relied on the former Service Chief for advice, thus inadvertently allowing the situation to worsen. The Horn of Africa service was essentially ungovernable.
Balkanisation Phase (1997-1998)
I became Service Chief for the Horn of Africa on December 29, 1998. By then, the service consisted of a ½ hour broadcast in Amharic followed by 15 minutes in Tigrinya and 15 minutes in Afan Oromo. During my interview Mr. Alan Heil, then VOA’s Deputy Director, told me emphatically that the Horn of Africa service was rife with problems and conflicts that had been simmering for over a decade. My job, he explained, was to bring balance, objectivity, and professionalism to the service. My knowledge of Ethiopian politics was a key factor in their selection. It was implied during this interview that the VOA, tacitly acknowledging the conflict of interest of a highly politicised staff, preferred a non-Ethiopian to serve as chief.
VOA Deputy Director Heil’s assessment of the Service was, even in those strong terms, understated. The work environment was appalling. The Horn of Africa service was polarised by ethnic tensions, personal animosities and political intrigues that surpassed Machiavelli. These hostilities were unabashedly articulated in day-to-day discourse. The Afan Oromo program staff accused the Amharic program staff of 'Amhara chauvinism.' The Tigrinya program staff accused the Amharic staff of 'Ethiopian chauvinism.' The Amharic staff resented the fact that the additional languages took away one-half hour of Amharic broadcasting time. Meetings were characterised by personal attacks, including name-calling and accusations. In this federal workplace, there was an utter disdain for professional courtesy and conduct.
Moreover, there was a lack of understanding, either deliberate or naive, about VOA as a US government agency. During discussions about editorial content, I would remind staff that the Horn of Africa Service represented no specific Ethiopian or Eritrean political organisation or ideology - indeed, we were 'the Voice of America.' One staff proudly proclaimed that he was a journalist and, as a journalist, he did not really work for the US government. I came to know that this view was widespread, although slightly misrepresented by this staff member’s statement. There were signs that, despite pay checks from the US government, some staff were indeed working as independent journalists, albeit in the interests of specific political organisations who used the VOA to promote a partisan agenda antithetical to the principals of the VOA Charter.
There were two external factors that worked to maintain a constant level of internal tension and strife. First, the former Service Chief exerted influence on the editorial content and program management of the Service through his close friendship with the Africa Division Director. Moreover, he served as an unofficial 'deputy' to the Division Director, thereby indirectly having authority over the Service. This, in essence, violated the spirit of the VOA board’s decision to remove him from the Service. Second, the large, vocal community of political opposition living in Washington, DC understands very well the important role VOA plays in the Horn of Africa. Many VOA staff had direct links with these organisations. It is not an exaggeration to state that editorial decisions made during the 10:00 a.m. staff meetings were on the streets of Washington by noon that same day. It was not unusual for people outside the VOA to telephone me at work and at home to register 'official protests' of my decisions. Indeed, at one point there was a petition circulating in many of the Ethiopian restaurants and bars calling for my dismissal from the Voice of America. I was personally threatened and reported this to VOA management. Another staff member, perceived to be 'pro-Ethiopian government,' received letters from Eritrea that threatened her safety and the safety of her little boy. I reported both to VOA management but was there was not attempt to alert the appropriate authorities. During this phase, a disturbing pattern emerged within the two new language programs - Tigrinya and Afan Oromo. In order to maintain consistency of information and to minimise the threat of any program representing the political views of any organisation, I established an editorial policy based on 'one Service-three languages.' In other words, to avoid 'Balkanisation,' the three languages would broadcast essentially the same material, particularly reports on political events, but also features on history, culture, literature, language, etc. In other words, a feature about Oromo culture would be translated into Amharic and Tigrinya. A feature about some aspect of Eritrean culture or Amharic culture would be translated into Afan Oromo, etc. This editorial policy was the target of pitched battles within the Service and tactics - particularly delaying tactics - were employed to subvert the spirit of the policy (see following section, Dirty Tricks in Broadcasting).
The most trying period occurred during the June 1998 conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The lines were drawn in the sand among staff. The Afan Oromo language program required constant vigilance to report news of the war and to translate Amharic and Tigrinya interviews with officials into correspondent reports. They argued that the war didn’t concern the Oromo people -- it was a war between the Tigreans and the Eritreans. The Tigrinya language staff, dominated by Eritreans, contested every news report, accusing the Amharic staff, the US government, and the international community of misrepresenting the facts of the conflict. Tension exploded one day when the Tigrinya editor accused me and an Amharic staff member of colluding with the Ethiopian government to prevent her from reporting from the war front the 'true nature of the conflict.' This staff member apparently locked horns with a former EPRP comrade, now an Ethiopian government official, in her home province of Tigray. She filed a formal complaint to VOA management, and I found myself in the untenable position of defending myself against such outrageous accusations.
The creation of a new program, Yedemocracia Medrak (Democracy Forum), in the fall of 1998 significantly raised the political capital within the Horn of Africa Service. By then, my confidence building measures with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments resulted in the lifting of the boycott of VOA. The Horn of Africa Service, for the first time in its history, had access to Ethiopian and Eritrean officials at the highest levels of government. This ended the Ethiopian opposition’s monopoly of VOA broadcasting. Predictably, this offended VOA staff with partisan interests. Ethiopian political organisations in the US and Europe wrote letters condemning me, the program, and the two new broadcasters hired to produce the program.
Dirty Tricks in Broadcasting
Broadcasting is not a science. There are many ways to shape a program that reflects a particular bias or a partisan viewpoint. Even with straight translations, there is room to manoeuvre. An experienced translator can choose words and phrases that can convey doubt, sarcasm, and disbelief. Amharic, for example, has a rich tradition of 'wax and gold', where words have double meanings. Although VOA periodically requires a 'spot check' of translations, the staff are asked to recommended names of translators, thereby ensuring a favourable evaluation.
The staff employed use more blatant methods of slanting the programs. Panel formats are a highly effective means of skewing information. Participants can be carefully selected so that one group may be represented by an articulate spokesperson while another group is represented by someone less articulate and less informed. The Amharic staff, I was told, regularly gave questions out to groups they favoured and went so far as to coach them for on-air effectiveness. The interview format includes many of the same dynamics as the panel. A favoured guest is coached and allowed time to adequately answer the question. Moreover, the editing process also affords ample opportunity to skew a guest’s presentation either favourably or unfavourably. For example, one IRB was assigned to interview Ethiopia’s President Negasso Gidada. He deliberately didn’t edit out the President’s pauses, repetitions, throat clearing and other common verbal lapses in ordinary conversation. The broadcaster skilfully edited his own questions, thereby, creating the effect of the President sounding inarticulate in contrast to the interviewer’s flawless delivery of questions and follow-up questions.
More obvious techniques for shaping a program to reflect a bias are the section of news and reports as well as the time given for official rebuttals. When I first arrived at the VOA, I suggested that we balance our negative news about Ethiopia and Eritrea with stories about positive developments in the country. This suggestion produced shock and dismay among many of the staff. Indeed, several refused direct assignments to report on issues such as infrastructure improvement, development projects, and community initiatives that were having a positive effect on the lives of people. Time for official rebuttals from the government were also an effective means for shaping perceptions among listeners. On more than one occasion, following a negative story about Ethiopia, the government representative’s response was cut to barely two minutes to rebut a fifteen to twenty minute story.
Rumours and sensationalism, the heart and soul of tabloid journalism, was pursued with unbridled enthusiasm. I was shocked during my second week at the Voice when one IRB breathlessly told me that Prime Minister Meles was dead. He said that he had received several telephone calls from trusted sources. This information was conveyed to me several minutes before air time. Not being an idiot, I dismissed his claims but wondered if he genuinely believed I would broadcast such a potentially volatile report. In another instance, this same reporter conducted an interview with three air force pilots who had defected to the United States. I killed the story after I accidentally walked into a session where two individuals were coaching the three pilots on how to answer questions so as to enhance their claim for asylum. Although normally an important story to broadcast, I questioned the ethics of an interview where answers appeared to be deliberately fixed for benefit of a request for political asylum. This decision brought on a flood of protest from the staff and a public accusation that I was 'unethical and unprofessional.'
Another technique that was employed was omission. For example, the June 1998 conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea provoked extreme reactions among staff of the three language programs. The Tigrinya program is staffed by two Eritreans. The editor, a senior staff who began working for the VOA in 1982, is a former EPRP member with ambivalent feelings about the TPLF. Although there are many examples of partisanship that took place in the Tigrinya broadcasting, I will illustrate just a few. On one occasion, a Tigrinyan broadcaster rewrote the editor’s text to delete the word 'occupied' from describing Eritrean military forces in Zalambesa and Badme. In another instance, this same broadcaster tried, seconds before air time, to bump off the air an interview with Gebru Asrat, Ethiopia’s President of Tigray. On numerous occasions, the Tigrayan program would not give air time to interviews with Ethiopian government officials or even local Tigrayan administrators. When I traveled in Tigray during the month of October, local Tigreans refused to be interviewed in Tigrinya, insisting on Amharic, as their perception was that the Tigrinya program represented the views of the Eritrean government. The Afan Oromo program committed serious lapses of omission during this period. Staff argued vehemently that the war did not concern the Oromo people of Ethiopia. In a similar vein, the Afan Oromo program refused to produce a program celebrating the Ethiopian New Year, claiming that the Oromo did not follow the Gregorian calendar. Another significant omission in Afan Oromo was the refusal of one stringer in Ethiopia to identify 'Addis Ababa' as the origin of the report. I had decided that all three languages would use 'Addis Ababa' as the place name for Ethiopia’s capital. Previously, the Afan Oromo service had used the Oromo name, 'Fin Fine.' My reasons were twofold: 1) to maintain consistency in all three languages on the official name of the capital of Ethiopia; and, 2) to distance the program from an ideological interpretation of using 'Fin Fine' versus 'Addis Ababa.' Although the staff made compelling linguistic arguments favouring 'Fin Fine', it was a decision I was comfortable with and explained my reasons. The response by the staff was to simply avoid either name.
In a wonderfully clever bit of subterfuge, interviews or reports given in two languages would contain two different responses from the interviewee. For example, in an interview with a highly respected Oromo scholar, his answers in Afan Oromo differed from his answers in Amharic. In a similar manner, a VOA stringer in Eritrea wrote several correspondent reports in Tigrinya and Amharic on press conferences held by President Isayas - the Amharic version omitted key elements that were reported in the Tigrinya version.
Rubbing Salt in Old Wounds: VOA’s Diplomatic Faux Pas
In the summer of 1998, the VOA Director Mrs. Evelyn S. Lieberman, announced her intention to travel to Africa to promote her Radio Democracy for Africa (RDA) proposal. Director Lieberman wanted to learn from Africans what RDA should be about. Her entourage consisted of political appointees with no experience in broadcasting and no experience in African affairs. At the urging of the African Division Director, she selected the former Amharic Service Chief to also accompany her in an effort to give the group a veneer of authenticity and colour. This was the Chief who had systematically sought to undermine the Ethiopian government, and the first scheduled stop on their African visit was Addis Ababa. For those who knew the secrets of the VOA Amharic Service, the choice was baffling. Ethiopian officials were angered at what they interpreted as a VOA affront. Having been refused a visa previously - the only VOA staff who has been refused a visa by the Ethiopian government - the former Service Chief was issued a diplomatic passport in a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government denied his request yet again. Using the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict as a pretext, the VOA Director responded to the visa stand off by cancelling her trip to Ethiopia, causing a minor diplomatic incident and angering US diplomats in Addis. Ethiopian government officials grew in the suspicion of RDA’s intent and purpose. Those within VOA who knew the history of the Horn of Africa Service interpreted the selection of the former Chief to accompany VOA Director as travesty of the principles behind RDA given the former Service Chief’s history of soiling the VOA Charter.
Director Lieberman has been the driving force behind VOA’s RDA Initiative. She has argued that the VOA Africa Division is well placed to carry out surrogate broadcasting. Within VOA, RDA is largely seen as little more than a tactical manoeuvre designed to erode Congressional support for the development of a Radio Free Africa similar in organisation and function to the recently founded Radio Free Asia. VOA fears an inevitable budget loss if support within Congress for a Radio Free Africa grows. Mrs. Lieberman has thrown her considerable political clout behind RDA. She is widely regarded as a close confidant of First Lady Hillary Clinton and left the position of Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House to assume leadership of VOA. How is it possible for someone of her political stature to make such a gross diplomatic faux pas as she did with the Ethiopian government. The explanation is found in VOA’s institutional culture and the subsequent bad advice that she received from career bureaucrats.
Inside the VOA Culture
Despite repeated protests over a period of many years from different quarters of the US foreign policy establishment, VOA has not effectively addressed the problem of the Horn of Africa Service. There are many reasons for this. First, organisations by definition seek to defend and protect their interests. By acknowledging a long history of conflict of interest in that service, VOA essentially opens itself up to scrutiny in all of the language services. Although there is an internal mechanism for periodic program reviews, the system is inherently flawed to evaluate more complex issues of balance and objectivity. Translators of scripts are selected by the services themselves. The program reviews tend to focus on the more technical aspects of programming. A more comprehensive review process requires knowledge about the specific political and social context of the target broadcasting area.
Second, the culture at the VOA reflects a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' philosophy of management. Management prefers not to know about problems within the language services. The institutional hierarchy relegates the language services to the bottom -- the 'stepchildren' of the news department and world wide English. In most cases, the language services reflect the culture of the staff, and outsiders, including upper management, do not understand the internal social dynamics of caste and ethnicity that shape the outlook and behaviour of the broadcast teams. In the Horn of Africa Service, ethnicity, nationality and political ideology control the content of programming. In addition, the social norms of behaviour require that these internal conflicts remain inside the group, lest anyone expose himself/herself to scrutiny. Hence, there is an unspoken agreement between the language services and upper management to keep problems contained within the services.
Third, the Horn of Africa Service has created a mythology that is accepted and, indeed, celebrated by VOA management. The former Service Chief informed me that he alone was responsible for the fall of Mengistu’s government and that the EPRDF, particularly the TPLF should thank him for his role. Indeed, he stated that he was "a hero." Other "heroes" in the Service are those who have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new government, and continue their struggle to discredit it. This hyperbole has been repeated often enough to upper VOA management to become the defining mythology -- a heroic language service struggling to promote freedom and democracy to Ethiopia.
Fourth, the VOA assumes that any complaint about VOA broadcasting from the foreign policy establishment or a foreign government is politically motivated and compromises VOA’s integrity as a free press. In the Horn of Africa Service, the Ethiopian government is always assumed to be trying to subvert America’s free press, despite support of their allegations from the foreign policy establishment. In its zeal to protect its autonomy, the VOA fails to adequately address even justifiable critiques of its programming.
And fifth, VOA is suspicious of outsiders. Except for the revolving door of political appointees, VOA is staffed by long-timers who resist change, particularly change from the outside. A system of cronyism assures that like-minded individuals are promoted to higher levels of management, rewarding individuals who resist the compelling need to reinvent the organisation.
On October 6, 1998 I wrote a memo to VOA’s Program Director citing all of these very serious problems inside the Horn of Africa Service. In this memo, I also pointed out that the former Service Chief’s friendship with my Division Director and his role as unofficial Africa division deputy allowed him to exert improper influence on programming. This was a violation of the decision made by VOA’s governing board in 1996. At the time I wrote the memo, I was travelling to the Ethiopian/Eritrean war front to see the terrain to better manage our reporting of the war. When I returned to Washington, DC, I received no response from the Program Director. On November 12th, I forwarded a similar memo to VOA Director, Mrs. Evelyn S. Lieberman. On November 20th, I was fired. The reason cited was 'a lack of professional journalistic ethics!' The former Service Chief, who was forced to resign his position under VOA’s previous management, is now acting Chief for the Horn of Africa Service.
In many ways, it was a good year for VOA’s Horn of Africa Service. The list of accomplishments for that service is long. The participation of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments on VOA programs in all three languages; 8 new reporters hired in Ethiopia and Eritrea for all three languages; a new 1/2 hour morning show in Amharic; a workshop on reporting in conflict situations held in Addis Ababa; and new programs on democracy, agriculture, youth and culture went on the air. During the May/June conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a VOA Amharic staff member broke the story world wide and followed it up with exclusive interviews with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Speaker of the Parliament. The Eritrean President likewise was interviewed. The Eritrean Ambassador to the United States was interviewed in Amharic - a first. The Ethiopian opposition was always given equal airtime.
It was a difficult year. On December 29, 1998, as a requirement for every federal employee, I took an oath of allegiance to the United States government. I took this oath seriously. My job was to protect the credibility and integrity of the Voice of America. Many of my VOA colleagues advised me to keep silent. I stayed awake on many a night agonising over decisions and their possible repercussions. Some of my own staff shouted at me, called me names, and threatened me. The Ethiopian political opposition wrote about me in their newspapers. I was physically threatened on several occasions. Ethiopians and Eritreans called my home and maligned my name. In Eritrea, people called me a liar. And the worst part wasn’t being fired - it was being fired for telling the truth.
I stated in the beginning that the role played by VOA broadcasting to that region, has been detrimental not only to US foreign policy interests, but to the credibility of the VOA, and the long-term peace, stability, and democratisation of a highly volatile and strategic region of Africa. It is VOA’s responsibility and challenge to conduct a comprehensive and substantive evaluation of the Horn of Africa Service in order to serve the interests of the organisation and US efforts to promote peace, stability and democratisation in the region.