Zecharias Zelalem, 2 Jun 2021
(Mail and Guardian) — Voice of America (VOA) has been accused of whitewashing atrocities and airing propaganda in favour of the Ethiopian government during the course of the civil war being waged in that country’s northern Tigray region.
An analysis of hundreds of internal memos and interviews with about a dozen former and current members of the VOA’s Horn of Africa division shows Ethiopian government biases in how the broadcaster frames the conflict, and in the stories and viewpoints it chooses to air.
These biases mean the VOA’s coverage remains largely favourable for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize and whose security forces stand accused of massacres and ethnic cleansing.
Among the journalists interviewed is Jason Patinkin, who served as an international broadcaster in the Africa division’s English to Africa service. He worked as a reporter, host, producer and editor of content for the network’s radio, television and web audiences.
“The VOA’s coverage writ large shows that the organisation has taken a side in Ethiopia’s Tigray war. Every level of the VOA hierarchy knows about the bias, in part because I’ve raised it at every level, yet so far management has failed to put a stop to it.”
In a response to questions, the VOA, which is funded by the United States, said: “VOA does its best to cover the situation in Ethiopia fairly and accurately. There are strong feelings in the region about the conflict, and we hear from partisans of all sides. Our goal is objective journalism.”
It wouldn’t comment on specific allegations but said: “When we receive complaints, we investigate and take actions, if necessary, against journalists whose coverage has violated our principles of producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, with this or any other story.”
The VOA, with a budget topping $250-million, broadcasts content in 47 languages, with more than a thousand journalists serving audiences around the world.
More than a dozen of the VOA’s Horn of Africa division’s reporters and stringers are based in Ethiopia, and more work remotely from Washington DC for the network’s Amharic, Tigrigna and Afaan Oromo language desks, and contribute English language stories as well. Since the establishment of the division in 1982, the VOA’s broadcasts reach more than 11-million listeners weekly.
For months, the Ethiopian government waged a “law enforcement operation” in Tigray under a communications blackout, with journalists and aid workers prohibited from entering the region. Ethiopian forces were sent in to oust the Tigrayan regional government on November 4, backed by troops from neighbouring Eritrea.
Eventually, through the accumulation of accounts, the use of satellite imagery and footage smuggled out of the region, journalists began to piece together a grim picture of a civil war with punitive atrocities meted out against the region’s inhabitants.
Major news outlets worked remotely with unreliable phone access, or with Addis Ababa-based correspondents whose press credentials risked revocation at a moment’s notice. Local media coverage has been largely snuffed out by Ethiopian authorities, who rounded up half a dozen reporters weeks into the war.
Despite the constraints, the VOA and its team of local reporters remained unperturbed while journalists from Reuters, Deutsche Welle and the BBC received warnings from Ethiopian authorities for their critical coverage.
Even with these difficulties, journalists have unearthed the war’s hidden tragedies. The world has since learned of the razing of villages, the gang rape of women and extrajudicial killings. Last month, a consortium of outlets, including CNN, the BBC and Bellingcat, identified Ethiopian soldiers as being behind the videotaped executions of dozens of men near the town of Mahbere Dego.
The VOA boasts a newsroom with an arsenal of foreign experts and reporters who hail from the region, yet it has thus far produced precious little hard-hitting journalism on the conflict in Tigray.
Patinkin says this is by design.
Concerned with the VOA’s reluctance to highlight atrocities carried out by Ethiopian forces and their allies, he raised his concerns with upper management, which did little. Earlier this month, Patinkin quit the network over the inaction and unwillingness to curb the VOA’s spread of what he says is Ethiopian government propaganda.
“I have repeatedly raised this issue across different levels of management and even with the acting director, but everyone has dragged their feet,” he said. “I could not, in good conscience, stay at an organisation that is acting against every journalistic value that I know.
“We’re talking about potential crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and perhaps even genocide carried out by Prime Minister Abiy’s forces and allies. Yet with a few exceptions, I think the VOA’s coverage shows the organisation has sided with the perpetrators both by commission and omission. At the end of the day, the only recourse I had was to leave and speak out.”
A tale of two massacres
The network’s coverage of atrocities has been noticeably selective.
Atrocities committed in the war by state forces appear to get little to no coverage. Whereas the November 9 killings of hundreds of civilians in the town of May Kadra, which Amnesty determined was carried out by a group loyal to the Tigrayan rebels opposed to the Ethiopian government, received extensive coverage.
From November through to February, the VOA’s Amharic language desk has produced more than a dozen news pieces on the May Kadra massacre.
A story on Amnesty International’s own report was produced. Reports on funerals held for the victims and the erection of a monument a month later to honour them were published. Interviews with officials discussing the massacre, and the trials of suspects were also allocated airtime. Eventually, the VOA sent a video team to the battered town to meet the survivors.
This contrasts greatly with the network’s coverage of the Axum massacre, which was similarly uncovered by Amnesty International and made global headlines.
In that atrocity, where soldiers from Eritrea went door to door killing hundreds of unarmed males in their homes, coverage has largely focused on statements by government officials either criticising the Amnesty International investigation or denying that civilians were among the dead. A report by The Intercept revealed that a Tigrigna language report on that massacre was withheld from publishing for weeks.
Journalists identify Negussie Mengesha, who, until recently, was the head of the VOA’s Africa division, as overseeing the transformation of the VOA into a pro-Ethiopian propaganda outlet. Negussie joined the Horn of Africa service in 1982, the year of its inception.
Tizita Belachew, also a VOA veteran and Negussie’s confidante, is said to also be complicit. She made the climb from the Amharic desk to her current role as the service head.
Neither Negussie nor Tizita responded to requests for comment.
Between 2012 and 2014, Peter Heinlein, a former VOA correspondent to New Delhi, Moscow and Addis Ababa, took over the Horn of Africa service. He was briefly arrested by Ethiopian authorities in 2012 for “illegally reporting” on an uprising of Ethiopian Muslims.
Frustrated by what he said were Negussie’s efforts to undermine his authority, Heinlein wrote a lengthy complaint in 2013, outlining all that was wrong with the Horn of Africa desk.
According to Heinlein, the matter dates back to when the Horn of Africa service was founded and tasked solely with translating English news stories from the central department to Ethiopian languages. He explained that when the VOA paved the way for language services employees to publish their own stories, translators were suddenly asked to become journalists, something many weren’t qualified for.
“A big part of the problem is that the language service staffers have widely varying levels of training in, and understanding of, the craft of journalism as it is practiced in western countries,” Heinlein wrote. “And because skill in a particular language is a requirement in these services, the field of qualified applicants for these jobs is narrow, and heavily laced with people with political motivations.”
Eight years later, Heinlein believes that speaking out could perhaps usher in the overhaul he believes is needed at the VOA.
“Of course, this story deserves the light of day which has long eluded it,” Heinlein said.
The Voice of Abiy
For decades, the VOA’s Amharic service made a name for its criticism of the Ethiopian government. Then, in October 2018, Negussie met Abiy. Accompanied by Tizita, the two had what he described as an hour long “off the record” discussion.
The VOA’s reporting has since shifted away from its anti-government stance. Interviewees say Negussie and Tizita have enforced the change in a newsroom that they feel they have ownership of.
Staff at the VOA echoed their exasperation with editorial policies, which they say have curtailed their freedom to pursue certain stories. They also lament the hiring of staff who, they say, were brought in solely to tow the government’s line.
“At the Horn of Africa desk, the VOA has definitely become the Voice of Abiy,” one employee said.
Negussie was to retire in November, but postponed this when the war in Tigray broke out. Staying on board as Ethiopia was engulfed by fierce fighting, he oversaw Tizita’s appointment as the Horn of Africa’s service head, notifying staff in an email sent out on December 31. He retired last month.
Despite the recent appointment, staff say that Tizita has been working unofficially as an editor-in-chief for years. Under Tizita’s stringent control, story ideas deemed damaging for the Ethiopian government, such as the Axum massacre, are either dropped, delayed or edited until rendered unrecognisable.
In emails, Tizita urges staff to push through a story on a pro-government rally in Washington DC. But in reaction to a Reuters story on the Axum massacre, she doesn’t hold back in her scrutiny of it.
Journalists who requested anonymity said the division heads are able to slant the editorial coverage in this manner knowing that, with families to raise and the lack of Ethiopian language newsroom opportunities elsewhere, few journalists are likely to openly protest despite growing discontent.
Patinkin agrees. “There’s a climate of fear, including in the English to Africa division, due to mismanagement and toxicity,” he says. “I believe that part of the reason I’m more comfortable speaking out compared to some of my colleagues, is that I’m a US born white male with no children and no major financial obligations. Sadly that gives me more protection.”
The atmosphere is the reason, according to interviewees, why the VOA, with all of its resources, trails the likes of The Telegraph, LA Times and VICE News in terms of hard-hitting coverage of the Tigray war by a distance.
The VOA has instead elected to produce extensive coverage of pro-Ethiopian government rallies in New York City, Washington DC, Las Vegas, and areas outside of the US where Ethiopians reside. A report on a dinner party organised by Ethiopians in the US to raise funds for their army was also published.
The M&G has amassed data from 107 meetings held by the Horn of Africa service between the start of the war in Tigray on 4 November last year and 30 April this year. After meetings, the network issues a list of “morning highlights”, a preliminary list of stories given approval by Tizita and an Amharic desk journalist, Solomon Abate.
Only at 18.7% of those meetings have stories on the war, inclusive of Tigrayan voices, been given approval by Tizita or Solomon. The data shows that the majority of approved stories were one-sided, featuring interviews with government or military officials. Meanwhile, at nearly a fifth of the meetings, the war in Tigray was omitted from the day’s agenda.
Official guidelines emailed out to staff by Negussie’s deputy, Scott Stearns, are also revelatory. Stearns, described by colleagues as a protégé of Negussie, instructed that journalists were not to use the term “civil war” to refer to the war in Tigray. Patinkin has claimed that the use of “war” was also forbidden.
“There are to be no deviations from these instructions by any member of any Africa division language service on any platform,” reads the 14 November email sent by Stearns.
The M&G, Reuters and CNN are among a plethora of outlets who have designated the ongoing crisis in Tigray as a war. The head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church recently characterised it as a genocide of the Tigrayan people.
The Ethiopian government has expressed dismay at the regular use of “war” or “civil war,” by media and diplomats alike.
“(Ethiopia) is not embroiled in a brutal civil war, it is undertaking a law enforcement operation that will salvage the nation from descending into a civil war,” reads a 28 November bulletin published on the social media handle of an Ethiopian state-run fact checker account.
The VOA’s Horn of Africa division, in particular it’s Amharic language desk, has adopted use of the government’s terminology. On other occasions, the outlet has opened stories on the war describing it as “what the government refers to as the law enforcement operation”.
Staff say the term is inappropriate, because it sugarcoats the war’s sheer brutality.
“Honestly, using the term is a disgrace to the profession,” said one VOA employee. “It eats at you knowing that others believe you are complicit in a coverup of the truth.”
Making mention of the network’s lack of original reporting on a conflict fraught with human rights violations, the employee bemoaned the VOA’s use of journalists and camera crews to at least five Ethiopian cities late last year, to provide extensive coverage of pro-government rallies held in support of the army.
“That was a giant waste of the VOA’s resources,” the individual said. “We are investing loads of money and manpower into producing pro-war propaganda.”
Patinkin says the effect of the Horn of Africa’s division’s coverage has been noticeable by the dearth of English language reporting from the region. He believes this is likely because propaganda can fly under the VOA’s radar in Ethiopian languages, but wouldn’t be given a pass in English.
“The news centre has an East Africa bureau, yet there hasn’t been a single story on the war, except for one which was critical of Abiy. And that one was removed from the website,” Patinkin said. “From February onwards, as journalists gained access to Tigray and released original investigations into atrocities blamed on pro government forces, VOA’s News Centre produced nothing from the region for its international audiences.”
“There was, however, an original English language report from Washington DC, about pro-government rallies. That contrast, to me, says it all.”
Patinkin added that the shortage of original news means international audiences who rely on the VOA for their news are being left in the dark about Tigray and are turning to competing media houses to fill the news gap left by the VOA’s poor coverage.
“Essentially, our English language coverage of the war is from our UN and state department correspondents, and not from the ground. I believe this is deliberate. I doubt that access is an excuse, considering that the Horn of Africa service chief and senior division officials recently traveled to Addis Ababa at a time when other journalists are targeted by crackdowns.”
In addition to its coverage of pro-government rallies and fundraisers, the VOA’s Amharic language coverage of the war includes stories that appear to fall short of journalistic standards.
One mid-December Amharic radio segment reads like a communist-era style news bulletin. It featured interviews with wounded fighters at a hospital.
“Ethiopian soldiers injured in the Tigray war, say that the end result of the law enforcement operation, has them healing from their wounds quicker than ever and eager to rejoin their comrades in the army,” is how the announcer begins the first 20 seconds of the story.
The story proceeds: “TPLF [ Tigray people’s Liberation Front] fighters being treated in this same hospital tell the VOA that they’ve paid sacrifices for a pointless cause.”
The announcer’s lines appear to be little more than patriotic outbursts. The story violates the VOA’s journalistic code, which calls for contrasting viewpoints to be included in a story.
On 28 December last year, the VOA broadcast an eight-minute interview with the chief of the Ethiopian army, General Birhanu Jula, addressing what the VOA itself controversially stated were claims by “certain TPLF supporting media organisations who state that the war in Tigray isn’t over”.
Jula spoke uncontested, saying that TPLF forces had been crushed and that only remnants in remote hideouts remained. With the interviewer offering no rebuttals, the radio segment could have doubled as an army communique.
The VOA has also dedicated ample airtime to individuals who condemn critical coverage of the war in Tigray. One scholar who appeared on a January radio segment, went as far as linking death and destruction in the country to what he called “irresponsible news coverage”.
Last month, another report amplified a government communique that claimed the TPLF had infiltrated media outlets to publish stories besmirching Ethiopian army forces with the goal of exonerating the TPLF for its roles in atrocities.
Government supporters have been brought on air and have propped up a conspiracy theory that the TPLF has used its influence to sway media outlets and diplomats to do their bidding. Their calls to fight back against what they say is a campaign to “tarnish” the country’s image, are thinly veiled calls to reject news coverage that shines a spotlight on state violence in Tigray.
With these stories, interviewees are rarely challenged or asked to provide evidence for their claims. There are no opposing views and, perhaps most problematic of all, no mention of the violence in the region.
Although stories like these are given the nod, others, which are far more balanced, are removed because they are deemed too critical of the Ethiopian government, according to several interviewees.
Another internal memo confirms this. In December, Addis Ababa-based stringer Simon Marks produced a two-minute video segment that debates whether Abiy still merits his Nobel prize. The video was published on the VOA’s website by the network’s central division, which overrides the Africa division.
According to communications, the video was removed at the behest of Stearns, who emailed instructions telling division staff not to use the segment. Taken down from the website, the video remains on YouTube.
Patinkin says he sought to escalate the matter in pursuit of a solution.
“After only getting evasive non-answers from Stearns and silence from Negussie, I raised the issue with Steve Springer, who oversees standards at VOA,” Patinkin said.
“English to Africa Service chief Sonya Laurence-Green was willing to speak to me about my concerns. However, when we spoke, she reiterated that we were not to call the Tigray conflict a war, and openly expressed pro-government views, citing an opinion piece by former Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn. She also stated that any casualties inflicted by Ethiopia’s government were collateral damage and couldn’t be compared to atrocities committed by the TPLF.
“With this, I lost confidence and trust with the Africa division management.”
He said that the final straw was after Springer referred him to the VOA’s acting director, Yolanda Lopez. “She was noncommittal and responded with evasive non-answers. It became clear that every level of VOA was unwilling or unable to address the problem, so I put in my two weeks notice.”
Whistleblowers aren’t the only ones to complain of the network’s bias.
For Ethiopians, who hail from a country consistently ranked among the bottom third in global press freedom ranking indexes, the VOA is often the only independent source for news in their mother tongues.
Last year, outrage over VOA coverage following the 29 June murder of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa led to hundreds of Ethiopian Americans, who shared ethnic Oromo ancestry with Hachalu, protesting outside of the VOA’s Washington DC headquarters.
“Be objective. Our stories matter” was the cry of one young protester. The outrage led to the brief trending of the hashtag #unfollowvoaamharic among Ethiopian Facebook and Twitter users, who had called for a boycott of the platform.
“Most of the VOA Amharic team share an ideological similarity with the current prime minister,” said Abdurazak Dube, a human rights activist who helped coordinate the online protest. “They advocate for the regime informally in their media coverage. Tizita Belachew was the main focus of our campaign, as she’s in charge there.”
Abdurazak said that dozens of complaint letters were written and mailed to those high up in the VOA hierarchy but the criticism did not result in any changes.
“The VOA, especially the Amharic service, has been silent for the most part and when they speak up its directed at either downplaying the impact of the Tigray genocide or justifying it,” says Meaza Gidey, who is affiliated with Tigrayan activist network Omna Tigray. “The lack of impartiality in their almost nonexistent coverage of the Tigray genocide is a disgrace to the American taxpayers funding its operational costs.”
Staffers singled out Negussie and Tizita for criticism. “The VOA is their personal tool to pursue political goals in Ethiopia,” says one. “Anyone who interferes is attacked and harassed. They have maintained their fortress this way and it has come at the cost of our dignity.”
Patinkin says: “I think Stearns, Negussie and Tizita are the main culprits. But if I, as a low level, relatively new hire, was able to see all of this going on, I don’t think anyone in VOA management can credibly say they weren’t aware of the problem.”
The whistleblowers say Negussie’s retirement is unlikely to change much, with Tizita still firmly entrenched at the service, and Stearns, whom interviewees identify as being moulded by Negussie, appointed Africa division acting director.
“Unless the network’s lackadaisical approach changes,” one says, “a retired Negussie will run the VOA through his proxies. Sadly it seems that none of the higher ups care.”
Extensive attempts were made to obtain comment from Tizita, Stearns and Negussie. Lopez has not responded to queries.