Voice of America Is Accused of Ignoring Government Atrocities in Ethiopia

Voice of America Is Accused of Ignoring Government Atrocities in Ethiopia

By Nick Turse, May 21, 2021

Voice of America
The Voice of America headquarters is seen in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2021. Photo: Yodith Dammlash for The Intercept

(The Intercept) — JASON PATINKIN SPENT the better part of a decade as a freelance reporter, covering conflicts, extremism, and counterinsurgency in East Africa for major news outlets including the Washington Post, Reuters, and the Associated Press. He won commendations for relentless reporting under a repressive regime in South Sudan and broke stories about war crimes that provoked global outrage.

But as Patinkin watched a brutal civil war unfold in Ethiopia this winter and spring, the coverage by his most recent employer, the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America, shocked and unnerved him. Troops and paramilitaries loyal to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed were accused of killing and expelling civilians and committing gang rape, but VOA’s coverage largely favored the government, in Patinkin’s view, while ignoring its potential war crimes.

For months, Patinkin complained to senior editors about bias in the news outlet’s Ethiopia coverage. In his resignation email last month, he called out “VOA’s pro-Abiy propaganda effort,” its failure to issue corrections for “false and biased reporting,” and its airing of “pro-government propaganda while ignoring atrocities blamed on pro-government forces.” Twelve other current and former VOA service chiefs, reporters, and staffers, as well as outside experts, described violations of basic journalistic standards in VOA’s coverage of Ethiopia stretching back decades. Ethnic factions, especially in VOA’s Amharic language section, have used the news agency to push partisan agendas and settle scores, current and former VOA staff, including two former heads of the agency’s Horn of Africa service, told The Intercept.

“Since I was hired full-time at VOA about a year and a half ago, I’ve seen many incidents and decisions here that caused me great concern as a journalist,” Patinkin wrote in his April 30 resignation email, which was seen by The Intercept. “But VOA’s continued tolerance of a wartime propaganda effort is too much. I cannot in good conscience remain associated with this organization.”

Founded in 1942 with a mandate to serve as a “reliable and authoritative source of news,” Voice of America’s digital, television, and radio platforms provide news in more than 45 languages to an estimated weekly audience of more than 278 million people. With an annual budget of $252 million, the broadcaster says it is committed to “telling audiences the truth.”

The agency’s Horn of Africa service, especially VOA Amharic — which broadcasts in the language of the ethnic Amhara leaders and militias that Abiy and his government depend on — has failed to live up to that mission, the current and former VOA staffers said. “The Amharic service reaches Abiy’s political base. If the Amharic service were impartial, if it were reporting the atrocities, it would be so important,” one Africa Division reporter told The Intercept. “Instead, the American taxpayer is paying for propaganda.”

“This is a war, maybe a genocide, in Ethiopia,” the reporter said. “We have access to a lot of information — on the ground — that could be reported, but we’re hampered at every turn. It’s a matter of life or death. That’s no exaggeration whatsoever.”

“We have access to a lot of information — on the ground — that could be reported, but we’re hampered at every turn. It’s a matter of life or death. That’s no exaggeration whatsoever.”

VOA declined to answer detailed questions from The Intercept and did not respond to requests to interview senior staff named in this article. “The Voice of America expects all its journalists to adhere to the principles of producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting with journalistic integrity free of political interference on all broadcasting platforms and languages,” said Anna K. Morris, a Voice of America spokesperson. “Nearly 12 million people tune in to the [VOA Horn of Africa Service’s] broadcasts every week because of its impactful reporting aiming for the highest journalistic standards.”

But VOA staffers say that since Abiy dispatched troops to Ethiopia’s Tigray region last November to crush what he called a mutiny, the news agency’s longtime journalistic failings have become even more pronounced. “I never thought that I would experience this in the United States of America,” that same Africa Division reporter said. “We come from countries where we’ve never really had press freedom. To experience this in the U.S. is shocking.”

That is precisely why Patinkin felt compelled to resign after repeated complaints to his bosses, he told The Intercept.

“It’s appalling that VOA has been used to advance wartime propaganda. What VOA is doing, particularly the Horn of Africa service, is a complete abdication of the sacred duty that we have as journalists,” Patinkin said. “There may be a genocide going on in Tigray right now, so as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew — whose people have experienced genocide — there is no way that I’m going to be a part of that.”

Jason Patinkin
Jason Patinkin photographed in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2021. Photo: Yodith Dammlash for The Intercept

WHILE VOICE OF AMERICA has been a trusted news source for millions around the world for almost 80 years, there have been long-standing problems. Last year, Amanda Bennett, the director of Voice of America from 2016 to 2020, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that before she came on the job, “discipline and accountability were lax” and even “major infractions — like threatening coworkers, sleeping on the job, plagiarism, viewing pornography, and going AWOL for months — or even years — went unpunished.”

Voice of America was in turmoil for much of last year as Michael Pack, a former conservative filmmaker appointed by President Donald Trump to head VOA’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, sought to remake the broadcaster and other government-funded overseas news agencies. Pack’s tenure was marked by whistleblower complaints, a subpoena from Congress, a finding by the Office of Special Counsel that there was a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing among USAGM leadership, and court orders barring him from meddling in the operations of Voice of America and the other networks he oversaw. Pack resigned in January, seven months into a three-year term.

Pack was criticized for trying to undermine VOA’s editorial independence, but what has occurred in the news agency’s Africa Division has arguably been far more pernicious. Many division employees are African immigrants whose willingness to air workplace grievances may be constrained by circumstances beyond their control. “I’m lucky that I’m a white guy with no kids and a little bit of savings, so I could quit. But many of my colleagues might not have that freedom,” Patinkin said. “There are issues of citizenship, race, and gender that feed into issues of power at VOA’s Africa Division that make it difficult, even for people who are very upset, to speak out.”

Multiple current and former staff members, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, cast blame for the agency’s ethical and journalistic lapses on Negussie Mengesha, who recently retired as the head of the Africa Division after almost 40 years at VOA.

Mengesha immigrated to the United States in 1981 because journalism in Ethiopia was subject to “total censorship,” he said in a 2019 VOA video. Yet at Voice of America, Mengesha curtailed press freedom, advancing an unethical brand of journalism at odds with VOA policy and industry standards, current and former staffers said.

“Working with the now-retired former Africa Division head, Negussie, and the now-Horn of Africa head [Tizita Belachew], feels like we’re working for an extension of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation,” the Africa Division staffer said.

Negussie Mengesha
A photograph of Negussie Mengesha is seen on a branded Voice of America digital background, posted on May 12, 2016, and archived from his biography on VOA’s website. Screenshot: VOA

Phone calls and emails to Mengesha and Belachew went unreturned. A reporter for The Intercept visited a Washington, D.C.-area address associated with Mengesha, but no one answered the door. A note left for Mengesha at that address yielded no response.

Negussie Mengesha “is one of the biggest perpetrators of bias,” said Annette Sheckler, a former chief of Voice of America’s Horn of Africa service. “I am 100 percent certain that [VOA’s] coverage of the war against Tigray is biased in favor of Abiy Ahmed.”

VOA’s Horn of Africa service broadcasts to Ethiopia and Eritrea in three languages via VOA Amharic, VOA Afaan Oromoo, and VOA Tigrigna. Questions have long swirled around VOA’s Amharic programming, which began in 1982, almost 14 years before the other services, and aims to reach more than 100 million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea. A 1996 report by the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) mentioned that the Amharic service was replaced by “a new ‘Horn of Africa’ service” following “congressional complaints.” Sheckler, who served as head of the Horn of Africa service in the late 1990s, said that at the time, the Africa Division still resembled a 1950s-style “patronage system.”

VOA’s focus on Ethiopia came at a pivotal time for that nation. During the 1970s and 1980s, members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, known as TPLF, led a civil war against a Marxist dictatorship, finally taking power in 1991 at the head of a coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF. Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, led Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012 and presided over a period of stability and economic growth. His government, a key U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror, was also repressive and abusive to both critics and journalists.

Anti-government protests forced the TPLF from power in 2018, paving the way for Abiy, a self-styled reformer, to become prime minister. Tigrayan politicians were quickly purged from positions of authority, stoking enmity between the TPLF-governed Tigray region and the federal government.

Abiy Ahmed Isayas Afeworki
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, right, is welcomed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, second right, for his first visit in 22 years, at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 14, 2018. Photo: Mulugeta Ayene/AP

VOA was credited with playing an important role in bringing down Ethiopia’s dictatorship in 1991 but soon became a target for the new government, which harassed and arrested VOA journalists and even jammed VOA’s radio broadcasts. During these years, Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans working for the Horn of Africa service often pushed coverage agendas along ethnic and political lines, with the Amharic service acting as the “voice of the opposition,” according to former VOA employees who spoke with The Intercept.

Sheckler, who went to work for the EPRDF government after leaving VOA, said reporters working in the Horn of Africa service advanced a partisan political agenda that was at odds with its journalistic mandate. The head of another language service, who attended VOA Africa Division editorial meetings in the 1990s and 2000s and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of reluctance to publicly revisit their time at VOA, corroborated Sheckler’s account. “Negussie frequently presented politically biased positions when he was the chief of the Amharic Service,” the head of the other foreign language service said.

“I wanted to do something about the unethical behavior of the journalists who were working for me, but my boss was not only one of them, but the leader of them.”

Peter Heinlein spent more than a quarter century at VOA, including as a bureau chief in Moscow and New Delhi and as VOA’s senior White House correspondent, before retiring in 2018. For five years, Heinlein worked as a reporter in Ethiopia and was even arrested for what the EPRDF government called “illegal reporting.” When he took the reins at the Horn of Africa service in 2012, Heinlein found the very same biases and breaches of journalistic ethics that Sheckler had encountered more than a decade before. Many reporters showed little regard for basic journalistic standards. Instead, the Amharic section, he said, was being used to settle old scores from the 1970s and focused on undermining the EPRDF government. For example, callers on one talk radio show were frequently expatriate plants whose goal was to “bash the Ethiopian government,” Heinlein said. When he complained, Mengesha, by then chief of the Africa Division, seemed unmoved.

“I wanted to do something about the unethical behavior of the journalists who were working for me, but my boss was not only one of them, but the leader of them,” said Heinlein. “I told Negussie this is untenable. He told me that if I didn’t like it, I could leave. So, eventually, I asked for a transfer.”

Prior to 2018, when Abiy came to power, it was standard practice to simply translate English-language stories already published by VOA into local languages for audiences in Ethiopia and Eritrea. After Abiy became prime minister, an additional “government perspective” was added to previously published VOA stories, and sometimes even wire service articles, before being aired for an Ethiopian audience, two Africa Division reporters told The Intercept. “This is only for Ethiopian stories,” said one of them. “The other stories from the English services were not reedited.”

“Up until Abiy took over, we were able to report freely. If we got government reaction — ‘great.’ If we tried and didn’t — ‘fine,’” another Africa Division staffer said. “But once Abiy came to power, everything changed.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – APRIL 25, 2021 – People protest and march for Tigray in central London. (Photo credit should read Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 29: A small group of Tigray protesters gather outside of the United Nations (UN) on March 29, 2021 in New York City. The war-torn northern Ethiopian region has been the location for a conflict between pro-government and local fighters that has resulted in thousands of refugees spilling over the border into Sudan. Following months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray. The protesters are calling for the UN to take action against the Ethiopian government. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

THE CIVIL WAR in Ethiopia is rooted in long-standing ethnic enmities that were enflamed last fall when Abiy’s government launched a military operation to capture leaders of the TPLF, the ethnic-based party that has long represented the Tigray region. While Amhara authorities say they are reclaiming land seized by the TPLF in the 1990s, Tigrayans and the U.S. government allege that Ethiopian and allied forces are conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign in western Tigray. “Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased,” according to a U.S. government report obtained by the New York Times. The Ethiopian government denies the charge.

The United Nations’ human rights office says all sides, including the TPLF, are committing atrocities, but far more killings, rapes, and mass expulsions of civilians are attributed to Ethiopian troops, Amhara paramilitary forces, and allied soldiers from neighboring Eritrea. Six months on, the conflict has spawned a humanitarian crisis that has displaced 2.2 million people and left 91 percent of the region’s population in need of food assistance.

A complete picture of the civilian toll has been difficult to establish because Abiy has imposed an information blackout and a severe crackdown on journalists. Most recently, Simon Marks, an Irish journalist working for the Times who previously freelanced for VOA and has reported extensively on human rights abuses in the Tigray region, was expelled from Ethiopia on Thursday without explanation. 

The U.N. corroborated accounts of mass killings in Axum and Dengelat in central Tigray by Eritrean armed forces as well as the indiscriminate shelling of the towns of Mekelle, Humera, and Adigrat. Last month, the BBC confirmed, using video footage, that Ethiopian troops massacred at least 15 unarmed men near the town of Mahbere Dego. Initial reports said that hundreds of people killed with machetes and knives in Mai-Kadra were victims of ethnic Tigrayan forces. Later, Tigrayan refugees from the town said they were targeted by Ethiopian federal troops and allied regional forces, suggesting that both sides may have committed mass killings along ethnic lines. Government and allied forces have also been implicated in the widespread use of sexual assault — from the gang rape of women and girls to forcing them into sexual slavery — as a weapon of war.

An Ethiopian refugee who fled the Tigray conflict holds her child at the Um Raquba refugee camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state on Dec. 5, 2020. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers recently designated the TPLF as a terrorist organization, scuttling hopes for peace talks.

According to its “journalistic code,” VOA “rejects efforts by foreign and domestic special interest groups to use its radio and TV broadcasts, websites and social media sites as platforms for their own views.” But that is precisely what VOA reporters say is happening. “We hear from our audience. They tell us that they’re switching to the BBC because we’re pushing an Amhara agenda,” an Africa Division reporter said. “I could understand if people criticized VOA for pushing ‘America’s story,’ but we’re pushing a foreign government’s agenda. I feel like it’s the highest crime.”

Seven current Africa Division staffers spoke of bias by VOA Amharic that they said affects the whole Horn of Africa service. Reporters detailed a raft of issues, from parroting government talking points to inserting what one staffer called “pro-government propaganda” in VOA’s language service articles. Most crucially, the Africa Division staffers said, VOA Amharic soft-pedals reports of atrocities by government and allied forces; at the same time, VOA Amharic fails to republish reports of atrocities that VOA Tigrigna manages to get on the air.

Reporting from the Amharic service used Abiy’s preferred terminology, calling the conflict a “law enforcement operation” instead of a “war” in its opening days and referring to the TPLF as a “junta,” several Africa Division staff said. “It was literally a ‘copy and paste’ from government propaganda,” one reporter explained.

Patinkin ran into his own terminology troubles. “It was quite clear to me that this was a war, a civil war, so I used those words in a script, and that was removed,” he told The Intercept. Patinkin, a former nonresident fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, spent five years covering the civil war in South Sudan, where he and this reporter were colleagues and became friends. Informed by his long record of reporting on conflict in the region, he recalled the ways in which language has been used, in South Sudan and other countries, to advance government interests, and began to raise concerns with his superiors. “My journalist’s ‘Spidey sense’ tingled,” he said. “I knew something was wrong.”

A senior journalist with the Africa Division told The Intercept that they were similarly unsettled. “We got directives from our managers on how we should cover the conflict in Tigray. We asked, ‘Why should you issue directives on how we should cover the Ethiopian conflict and not every other conflict in Africa?’ We have covered post-election violence in Kenya, the crisis in Nigeria, and every other conflict on the continent, but there were no directives on how we should go about it,” they explained. “They said not to call it a war but to call it what the Ethiopian government is saying. We said, ‘That’s playing into the hands of the Ethiopian government.’” The complaints went nowhere, said the senior staffer, who asked not to be named due to potential repercussions at VOA. “You don’t want to push back too hard because that’s the hand that feeds you. But I agree with Jason Patinkin. We’re being censored.”

In his resignation email, Patinkin highlighted an English-language report “in December which was critical of PM Abiy and then withdrawn.”

That withdrawn story, a video package by a freelancer titled “Tigray Conflict Tarnishes Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Peacemaker Image,” echoed mainstream coverage by major international news organizations like the Times. It was critical of Abiy, noting that his image had taken a hit due to “alleged war crimes,” and was published briefly before being pulled at the behest of VOA’s Africa Division, according to email messages reviewed by The Intercept. A shadow of the story remains only as a dead link on the VOA website, although the video still exists on YouTube.

After Patinkin raised questions about the story’s withdrawal, Steven Springer, VOA’s news standards and best practices editor, wrote that then-Deputy Africa Division Director Scott Stearns and Negussie Mengesha had judged the report “to be unbalanced,” and vaguely suggested that a single analyst — who offered 33 anodyne words in the video — had engaged in “hate speech” on a social media account. In another email, Stearns wrote that editors would work with the freelancer on revisions. But a separate email reviewed by The Intercept indicates that the story had actually been killed a day earlier because the Africa Division had rejected the piece and there was now “no customer for it” at VOA. Three current staffers told The Intercept that the story was killed because it reflected poorly on Abiy.

A senior editor in the Africa Division told The Intercept that Patinkin’s were the only complaints that the editor had ever heard about biased coverage of Ethiopia, but current and former staffers say that’s impossible. “If management tries to rewrite history and say that they don’t know anything about it, that’s complete bullshit,” said one former staffer who attended a January 21 virtual meeting of the English to Africa Service held via Microsoft Teams that the staffer said was dominated by reporters voicing concerns about the agency’s Ethiopia coverage. Stearns, now acting Africa Division director, and Sonya Green, the chief of VOA’s English to Africa Service, were both at the meeting, according to four attendees.

“Sonya gaslit all of us,” the former staffer said. “She said we were not censored and that there was no bias in our coverage of Ethiopia.”

“The VOA PR office is the correct department to correspond with on official statements,” Green told The Intercept by email. “Please direct your questions to them.”

Ironically, editors selectively use VOA best practices, like an emphasis on providing “balance,” to curtail coverage, shape the narrative, and exhaust reporters, three staffers said. A double standard exists when it comes to pro-government experts and critics. Analysts who espouse anti-Abiy views have been nixed by editors and management, while more controversial experts who espouse anti-Tigrayan, anti-Oromoo sentiments are regularly used by VOA Amharic, Africa Division staffers explained.

Editors also find ways, the staffers said, to delay or even kill stories critical of Abiy’s government and fast-track others that portray it in a positive light. A major scoop about the mass killing of Tigrayan civilians last November was held until it was reported by other outlets, according to four VOA reporters. It was, several staffers said, not an isolated incident. Stories of extrajudicial killings are spiked for being “too small” or “too local.” “It’s all done under the guise of VOA editorial policy, but we all know what’s taking place,” one VOA reporter explained.

Freelancers and staff reporters alike now self-censor and file fluff reports that they know will meet muster, said three Africa Division reporters. “They’re filling the air with garbage,” said one of them. “This is a waste of taxpayers’ money. I’d rather see the service close than operate the way it is. Every day, I ask myself, ‘Am I a part of this mess? Am I allowing this mess?’”

Top/Left: Fisseha Abraha, 8, sits on his bed at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, Ethiopia, on Feb. 25, 2021. Bottom/Right: Arsema Berha, 9, rests on her bed at the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekele, Ethiopia, on Feb. 25, 2021. Arsema lost a hand and suffered several injuries during the heavy artillery shelling of her village of Alaje, Southern Tigray, where her family lost their home; one sister was killed and another was injured and treated at the same hospital. Photos: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Patinkin specifically cited coverage of the civilian killings as a precipitating factor in his decision to leave VOA, charging in his resignation email “that the Horn Service, under Tizita Belachew, Scott Stearns, and Negussie Mengesha, continues to air pro-government propaganda while ignoring atrocities blamed on pro-government forces.”

Outside experts bolstered these allegations, pointing to stark differences between coverage by VOA Amharic and VOA Tigrigna as well as other international media. Desta Haileselassie Hagos, a postdoctoral research fellow at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, who has been monitoring news coverage of the war in Tigray as part of a project documenting the civilian toll of the conflict, said he noticed a consistent pattern in which VOA Tigrigna aired news of atrocities that never appeared on the Amharic service.

“The Axum massacre was covered by Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and big international media including CNN, but it took one month after VOA Tigrigna did the story for VOA Amharic to publish just one article,” Desta said. He also pointed to a number of stories, including a December 31, 2020, report on looting by Ethiopian troops and allied Amhara regional forces and a January 11, 2021, report about the killing of civilians by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, that were published by VOA Tigrigna but never appeared on VOA Amharic. This bias is unique to VOA among similar broadcasters, Desta said. “BBC is doing a great job compared to VOA,” he told The Intercept. “When the BBC broadcasts news in Tigrigna, they air the same report in Amharic.”

A senior editor in VOA’s Africa Division with personal knowledge of Patinkin’s allegations claimed that Patinkin offered general complaints about bias but never provided specific examples. If he had offered five or more detailed allegations and been ignored, that would constitute negligence and a “big story,” the editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged.

But Patinkin had hardly been silent about his concerns. On March 23, he sent an email to Steven Springer, a senior editor whose job was to field concerns about VOA standards and issues such as bias in its coverage. The message, which was reviewed by The Intercept, included summaries of 28 VOA stories published between November 13, 2020, and March 19, 2021, followed by bolded critiques about the nature of the reporting and questions of fairness and balance. The synopses, extracted from a “Morning Highlights” email sent daily to members of the Africa Division, were only “some of the most outrageous” examples Patinkin had found, he wrote. The email, amounting to 11 printed pages, ended with a plea: “So what do I do? Leave VOA?… I know that unless there are major changes, it is impossible to hold on to my journalistic integrity while remaining under the current Africa Division leadership who has allowed, and even directed, such abhorrent coverage of this horrific war.” Hours later, Springer acknowledged receipt of the message.

Confronted with this information, the senior editor with personal knowledge of Patinkin’s allegations said that VOA management did not ignore his complaints. The editor suggested that The Intercept frame this part of the article as: “The resolution of Jason’s complaints was not to Jason’s satisfaction.”

That’s something Patinkin and his former bosses agree on. Patinkin says he continued to email Springer almost daily until he resigned, and emails seen by The Intercept show that Patinkin offered a running commentary about gaps in VOA reporting, comparisons of Voice of America coverage with that of other major news outlets, and specific allegations of bias in VOA stories. What action, if any, Springer took is unclear, as he did not agree to speak with The Intercept. “I trust that you received a statement from our Public Relations office,” Springer wrote in an email. “That covers me as well.”

Beyenesh Tekleyohannes cries in her house with a group of relatives in the village of Dengolat, north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray, on Feb. 26, 2021. A report by Amnesty International on Feb. 27, 2021, alleged that Eritrean soldiers fighting in Tigray had killed hundreds of people in November last year in what the rights group described as a likely crime against humanity. Photo: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

DURING THE LAST WEEK of April, when Patinkin gave his two weeks’ notice, Mengesha retired. 

Mengesha began his journalism career in Ethiopia in 1966. But the circumstances that he and other reporters faced in his native country made the job nearly impossible. There was “no freedom of the press. Imagine, as a journalist, you’re not free to report,” he recalled in a VOA video segment published on World Press Freedom Day in 2019. “I had to flee Ethiopia … because I could not really practice my profession.” 

Mengesha immigrated to the United States in 1981, began work at VOA’s Amharic service as a senior editor in 1982, and later became service chief of VOA Amharic and the Africa Division program manager before finally taking the helm as the Africa Division director. In 2018, Mengesha returned to Ethiopia for the first time in more than 35 years. During that trip, he had a one-hour, off-the-record meeting with Abiy. “He’s a very impressive person,” Mengesha said in a televised VOA recap that was light on substance and heavy on praise. “He seems to be quite determined, energetic … very charismatic. A very wonderful person, actually.”

This month marks the first time in almost 40 years that Mengesha isn’t directly shaping coverage of Ethiopia at VOA, but three reporters said that Belachew remains an impediment to unbiased coverage, continuing a tradition of squelching stories that reflect poorly on Abiy’s government. 

For example, during an editorial meeting held on January 11, 2021, via Microsoft Teams, a reporter pitched a story about the killing of hundreds of Tigrayan civilians and described interviews with family members of the dead, according to four VOA Africa Division staffers who attended. Once the reporter had finished, then-Amharic editor and now-Horn of Africa Chief Belachew unmuted herself and laughed. All four staffers recalled some variation of: “Ha ha! Is that so?” It has had, one attendee said, a chilling effect on other reporters. “It’s despicable,” said another who was present at the virtual meeting. “It’s a toxic environment. It’s unprofessional. There’s no code of conduct.” 

Some worried that Mengesha would continue to control coverage from afar through Belachew and others he installed at VOA. Four Africa Division reporters pointed to a Horn of Africa service coordinator based in Ethiopia who, they said, serves as a gatekeeper for local reporting, weeding out articles submitted by local VOA freelancers that might buck the government line. “He essentially works out of the prime minister’s office in Addis Ababa,” said one VOA staffer. “Reports get sent to him and he decides whether they’ll be forwarded on.”

In his resignation email, Patinkin lamented to acting VOA Director Yolanda López that he couldn’t get a straight answer about his concerns, writing: “first you told me that ‘VOA management…has taken the necessary actions to ensure a balance and unbiased coverage.’ Then you said it’s being looked into, but you couldn’t discuss it because it’s a personnel issue, even though the programming office and standards editor are involved, not HR. Now, you indicate that action will be taken in the future, but staff may not know about it when it happens.”

López’s reply was opaque. “I’m not indicating that action will be taken in the future or has been taken in the past,” she wrote. “I can continue assuring you that we are taking this issue very seriously and doing our due diligence.”

López did not respond to an interview request sent to her VOA email account.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on all parties to the war in Ethiopia to “cease all hostilities, protect human rights, allow unfettered humanitarian access, and cooperate with independent investigations of credible atrocity allegations.”

“It’s ironic to say the least that while the U.S. Congress has passed a resolution aimed at reducing suffering in Tigray, it has also been funding a sustained propaganda effort in support of the parties blamed for most of that suffering,” Patinkin told The Intercept.

Reporters with the Africa Division told The Intercept that they want a full-scale, transparent investigation, real accountability, and tangible action to correct previous biased reporting, as well as safeguards to ensure that it doesn’t continue. “Right now, I feel helpless,” said one of those journalists. “We want a way to speak out without risking our jobs.” 

Patinkin joined his former colleagues in a call for immediate action.

“I can’t imagine a more toxic workplace,” he told The Intercept. “VOA needs to be transparent, to issue corrections, and to stop doing the work of an oppressive government. People who allowed and directed the worst breach of journalistic ethics that I’ve ever seen should be held accountable.” 

 

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