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VOA and the unanswered questions | By Abebe Gellaw

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Abebe Gelaw
It turns out that after attending the UN General Assembly, Tedros Adhanom and Girma Birru rushed all the way from New York to Washington D.C. to stage their scandalous VOA “nightline show” on Saturday, September 26. It was a well-planned and coordinated mission which was made possible through the efforts of their expanding network, contacts and agents at VOA and beyond.
Backdoor diplomacy
Despite the outrageous nature of the backdoor scheme, which afforded a chance to the messengers of tyranny to dictate their whims and wishes of distorting the Voice of America, some people at the scandal-ridden section appear to be confused about their roles, rights and duties. A few think that it is okay to use their VOA position to serve tyranny in overt and covert operations. But it is a very risky misadventure in this age and time where the evidence maybe just a few clicks away.
There are also a couple of others that think that pushing any serious questions under the carpet and engaging in empty threats and abusive speeches, instead of addressing the real issues and questions at hand, is the hallmark of their professionalism and greatness. It appears that their confusion is going from bad to worse with each passing day. Thinking that no one can raise questions to them and report on matters of public concern reveals a regressive tendency akin to dictatorship.
That extraordinary meeting called at night to discuss the editorial quality and content of VOA broadcasts with representatives of a criminal regime was not a standard practice, as some try to pretend. It may be easy to dismiss serious issues being raised at coffee gatherings. But it appears that it is not as easy as the office bravado to do it properly. In any case, as far as the scandal is concerned, no one has come forward so far to explain the inexplicable backdoor diplomacy of Tedros Adhandom and Girma Birru at VOA.
VOA claims to be a beacon of hope, truth and freedom to oppressed people around the world. Contrary to that, the top diplomats of the TPLF-led tyranny openly represent oppression and injustice of an evil regime ruthlessly torturing, jailing, killing, kidnapping, displacing and robbing innocent civilians. This is not bias, but a reality that VOA itself helped to document well, at least in the past.
Unanswered questions
Whatever was the nature and intent of the talks, the guidance and edicts issued from the tyrannical side, there are seriously lingering questions that still need to be answered. When I received credible information from reliable sources on the bizarre meeting, I did my level best to get to the bottom of the issue and verify the information I received well before I published the story.
On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, at exactly 8:30 AM PST (11:30 AM EST), I called VOA Public Relations and talked to a PR officer named George Mackenzie. I explained what I needed and the kinds of questions I wanted to raise. He asked me to send my questions in writing so that he could route them to whoever would be the appropriate person to answer or give me an interview.
Within half an hour, I drafted my questions and emailed them at 9:03 AM. For the record, without fear or favor, the main questions were the following.
Dear VOA PR,
Further to my phone call this morning, I would like to submit the following questions regarding the visit of Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom and Ambassador Girma Birru.
I have received credible information regarding an unusual meeting the minister and the ambassador held at VOA headquarters, on Saturday, September 26th, 2015, from 7 PM to 9 AM, with journalists of VOA working at the Horn of Africa Section.
adhanom and birru
1. What was the nature of the meeting?
2. Who authorized the meeting, especially on a Saturday night?
3. Were VOA management invited to attend the meeting? If so, how did they handle the invitation?
4. Was the State Department or any other federal government agencies informed about the questionable meeting?
5. The top Ethiopian officials have reportedly demanded VOA journalists to focus on progress and development instead of sensitive issues like human rights. They have also allegedly said that giving airtime to dissidents was wrong. How does VOA approach the issue?
6. There is a feeling that the Ethiopian government should not have been allowed to compromise VOA’s independence and put undue influence or pressure on broadcasters. What is VOA’s position on this?
7. The Ethiopian government is known to be an enemy of press freedom. Why did VOA allow the officials to try to give instructions and guidelines to the journalists in the name of building trust?
8. Why do VOA journalists need to build trust and soften critical coverage about the repressive regime?
9. The officials have reportedly hinted that they are constantly informed about who does what at the VOA Horn of Africa section. Does VOA have any channels to inform them about who does what at the section?
10. What is the overall assessment of VOA on the outcome of the meeting and promises of “working together” for mutual benefit?
I thank you for your cooperation in anticipation.
My deadline is tomorrow. Please get back to me as soon as possible.
Best regards
Abebe Gellaw
After a few hours, I called to enquire when I can get the answers. Mr. Mackenzie told me that the questions were forwarded to the concerned authority. Apparently, the VOA boss who was supposed to give the answers happened to be an Ethiopian. But the boss failed to answer any of the questions despite my repeated phone calls and follow-up emails. Instead of answering the simple questions, they have resorted to inappropriate posturing and badmouthing. Needless to go into details at this stage, it is better to ignore the side show and focus on the pressing issues at hand.
Fairness and balance
I am curiously waiting that any of the questions will be answered satisfactorily. If the concerned VOA managers are serious about challenging the reports, it is better to do it openly and make themselves available for an interview. They can also open the airwaves for an honest discussion with the public and tell us what happened. Instead of reporting on every tiny matter that nobody cares about, what was being discussed on a Saturday night with the top guns of tyranny is newsworthy. There may also be audio recordings that can reveal the raw deal. Nothing is impossible!
On many occasions, I have written and reported on the messes and problems within VOA Horn of Africa section, especially VOA Amharic. While VOA’s senior executives have tried their level best to answer questions and investigate wrongdoings, including admitting that Henok Semaegzer’s amateurish distortions were below VOA’s standard, the concerned African division and service heads never answered any questions and have in fact exhibited dictatorial tendencies repeatedly. The same people cry foul after stories are published without still answering any questions or demanding corrections, if at all there are inaccuracies that can be challenged with factual evidence.
In the spirit of fairness and balance, the bosses should also convene another Saturday or Sunday night meeting behind the scene with opposition party leaders and the countless victims of TPLF’s tyranny to review the editorial quality of VOA and give their own guidelines and orders. That is the easy way to open a can of worms.
It is ironic to note that some VOA bosses used to claim to have an issue with government officials for failing or refusing to answer any serious questions raised by VOA Amharic service. Unless they are talking about a different standard, the same must apply to themselves. If getting answers to their questions is so important that they had to go out of their ways to welcome the tyrants in the middle of the night, why is it that answering a few serious questions once in a blue moon has become so hard for them?
It is evident that the tentacles of the TPLF regime, fearful of its fate and demise, is expanding inside and outside of the country. That is why it has an agenda of muzzling and suppressing every little voice. VOA has not been immune from the attacks over the years. When the failed jammers get a chance to jam from inside using their connections, it raises serious concerns that cannot be easily dismissed or pushed under the carpet now or in the future.
It is a well-known fact that VOA Amharic service is particularly a target of TPLF tyrants, who have also made serious efforts not only to jam it but also infiltrate the core team. The effort has made a difference to some extent. Sooner or later, VOA could be another TPLF propaganda outlet if the current rush to the bottom continues unchecked. Does Ethiopia need VOA to do such a hack job like Fana and Walta? The answer is obvious.
After living in the U.S. for decades, there are still a few people that do not seem to understand that VOA does not enjoy any special privileges that make it immune from public scrutiny at various levels. When questions are raised on its activities, it is expected to give proper answers. Behaving like African dictators whenever issues are raised, opinions and reports are published contradicts not only the very missions of VOA, but also infringes the tenets of U.S. constitution.
Here in the United States, we, the people, who exercise our rights to the full, are not powerless or voiceless. We have constitutionally guaranteed rights to voice our concerns and demand answers to our legitimate questions. We can speak out, write, complaint, petition or even legally challenge wrongdoings without fear of persecution. We can hold public institutions and officials accountable. No amount of dictatorial insult or threat helps to change this reality.
The huffing and puffing or resorting to cheap shots behind closed doors is only a sign of weakness, not a position of strength. In reality, such an approach mostly backfires as it only raises more questions and scrutinies.
Just to state the obvious, the standards expected of VOA services are much higher than propaganda outlets run by tin-pot African dictators. If this is not too obvious to miss, what else can be? Whatever one may say, it is not easy to intimidate and silence those who exercise their rights and respect their duties. I, for one, is not ready to be silenced with empty threats or cheap insults. I do hope that my position is at least clear enough.