Wikileaks: Woyanne vs. VOA

Wikileaks yesterday released the following U.S. diplomatic dispatch from Addis Ababa dated 15 and 22 November 2005.



¶1. This cable contains an action request. See paragraph

¶2. SUMMARY: On November 8, Charge d’Affaires met with local
and London-based Voice of America correspondents. She used
the meeting to discuss U.S. policy regarding Ethiopia, the
role the VOA is playing in Ethiopia at a time when its
listenership is likely at record levels, and Government of
Ethiopia concerns regarding the objectivity of the VOA
Amharic service. She provided them with background
information on the country’s evolving political situation
and a brief on-the-record quote. Government of Ethiopia
unhappiness with the VOA Amharic service is well known and
increasingly loudly expressed — and now threatens to result
in the loss of vital coverage to Ethiopians. The most
recent flare-up in GOE anger at VOA results from a VOA
bulletin that calls for a stay-at-home strike and asks
security forces to refuse to follow orders. Post requests
confirmation on whether this item did in fact run on VOA and
if so, please provide guidance on how to respond. An
independent analysis of VOA’s Amharic reporting is badly
needed in order to respond to GOE concerns and ensure that
VOA is not jammed or receives interference. END SUMMARY.


¶3. On November 8, Charge met with London-based VOA English
service correspondent Michael Drudge, along with local
stringers Iskender Firew and Meleskachew Amaha (the latter
still wearing bandages as a result of an October 26 beating
by unidentified assailants). Joining the meeting were the
Embassy’s A/DCM, PA Counselor, IO, PolOff, and FSN
Information Specialist.

¶4. Charge welcomed the journalists and consoled Meleskachew
on his injuries, telling him she had raised her concerns
about his assault with the Government. She noted the very
real need for VOA reporting at a time when Ethiopians are
unable to hear other independent voices — and that both the
Ethiopian people and the government were listening. She
expressed hope that, as a part of the U.S. Government, VOA
would be sensitive to U.S. policy issues and uphold its
history of fair and balanced reporting. Referring to
unconfirmed reports that the Government of Ethiopia may be
attempting to interfere with the reception of VOA, she noted
that, if true, it was a sign of how seriously VOA’s
reporting is taken. She cited a recent specific GOE
complaint (see below) and used it as an example of how
perceived bias can further impede the relationship between
the GOE and VOA. [NOTE: Since November 7, VOA reception in
Ethiopia has been increasingly unintelligible because of an
overlay to its frequency of Government-owned Radio Fana,
which has successfully reduced VOA’s ability to be heard.

¶5. Noting that she was well aware of the GOE’s blanket
reluctance to interact directly with the Amharic service,
the Charge said that it was still possible to report on
known GOE positions and important to present as broad a
spectrum of opinion as possible. COMMENT: One of the
problems is that VOA provides more news about the opposition
and its activities than any other news. Even if VOA does
not report GOE views, it could provide more news about other
events in the country. END COMMENT.

¶6. During a lively and positive Q&A, the Charge drew on
points presented to international correspondents at a
background briefing earlier in the day to explain U.S.
policy on the current situation. She described Ethiopia’s
current political situation and outlined the role the U.S.
and the broader international community are playing to
resolve the crisis and re-focus all sides on moving forward,
including the November 6 joint EU/U.S. statement. She
recapped what had taken place since internationally brokered
negotiations began in early October (and subsequently ended)
and noted her optimism that progress was still possible.
She said that dialogue — and a democratic future — is not
possible without renunciation of violence and cooperation
between the government and the opposition.

¶7. She called for the VOA’s help in focusing on the way
forward, citing the absence of other voices and Ethiopians’
always keen and increasing interest in VOA reporting
guarantee it a crucial place in getting balanced, accurate
information to them.


¶8. The current clampdown on private newspapers (in place
since November 2), combined with the state’s monopoly on
broadcast media and its content, has meant that Ethiopians
are increasingly relying on short-wave, local-language radio
broadcasts by the VOA (and, to a lesser extent, by Deutsche
Welle) for information on the rapidly evolving political
situation in the country. A side effect of this increased
prominence of VOA reporting has been ever-closer scrutiny of
its coverage, especially through the Amharic service, by the
government and its supporters. (NOTE: coverage by VOA’s
Tigrigna and Afaan Oromo services have escaped such
criticism of late, although the former came under fire
during the border war for alleged pro-Eritrean bias. Given
that the opposition is heavily based in the Amhara region,
the problem is specifically the Amharic service. END NOTE.)

¶9. The GOE’s perception of bias was demonstrated this week
by a November 7 letter to the Charge from State Minister of
Foreign Affairs Tekeda Alemu, who decried “the very
destructive role that the VOA Amharic service has been
playing in its broadcast to Ethiopia.” The letter goes on
to call the broadcast “one of the major sources of
instability…an instrument for stoking violence as well as
for advancing and propagating the policies of the most
hardliner section of the CUDP,” and “a transmitter of the
most destabilizing messages imaginable.”

¶10. Accompanying the letter was the Amharic text and an
English transcription of an excerpt from the news in the
Saturday, November 5 broadcast, during the height of the
violence in Addis Ababa, that gave the direct text from a
leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUDP).
This bulletin called for a stay-at-home strike beginning
November 7, to continue until CUDP leaders are released from
prison and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) agreed to negotiations. The
Ministry’s English translation of the excerpt closed with
what appeared to be a free-standing, unsourced statement:
“The law enforcement agencies and the defence forces who are
supposed to safeguard the safety of the public should
immediately refrain from implementing orders.” [NOTE: At
the time that VOA broadcast this information the CUDP leader
quoted was in hiding and was being sought by the Ethiopian
authorities. He was not authorized to speak for the CUDP.
But more worrisome still is the call for security and
defense forces to disobey orders. END NOTE.]

¶11. COMMENT: Government and EPRDF dissatisfaction with and
allegations of bias in VOA Amharic reporting are
longstanding. The last such round took place in June, when
VOA and DW local reporters lost their Ministry of
Information accreditation (and at least one VOA stringer
fled the country) and the state media carried denunciations
of the reporting of both. Whether or not actual reporting
carries biased or inaccurate information (and in general
that seems not to be the case), recent Post review of the
Amharic service does indicate that much coverage focuses on
opposition activities, both in the country and in the
Diaspora, with comparatively little illustrating other
points of view. The very reluctance of the GOE and its
supporters to engage with what it perceives as an opponent
may in fact be a substantial contributing factor in the
imbalance they perceive. END COMMENT.

¶12. ACTION ITEM: In order to reply to the Foreign
Ministry’s complaint, Post needs the complete text of the
VOA broadcast and specifically wishes to know if the item
calling on the armed forces to disobey orders was included.
Post also requests guidance on how to reply to this specific
complaint. Post would like independent data that would
allow provide a better window into VOA Amharic reporting,
allowing a better ability to evaluate allegations of bias.
Given that a strong perception of actual bias exists, and
that at least some imbalance may be demonstrable, Post
suggests an impartial review of VOA Amharic reporting over
the past six months. This suggestion is not made with the
intent of pointing fingers, but to better enable Post to
respond appropriately to the VOA’s vehement detractors in
Ethiopia and to ensure that VOA lives up to its reputation
for fair and balanced reporting.

[Ambassador Vicky] HUDDLESTON

2005-11-22 13:53




¶1. (U) SUMMARY: A November 15 meeting with State Minister
of Foreign Affairs Tekeda Alemu provided the opportunity for
the Charge to discuss the Government of Ethiopia’s concerns
regarding reporting by the VOA’s Amharic Service, as
well as larger issues of GOE press outreach and its
relationship with the private media (other topics discussed
reported SEPTEL). The State Minister’s views on both issues
do not indicate that quick fixes are likely on either. END

¶2. (SBU) During a meeting called by State Minister Tekeda,
the Charge raised GOE concerns about VOA Amharic service
reporting; the State Minister hat send two letters on the
subject within the past two weeks (the first reported
REFTEL). The Charge said that the Embassy takes charges of
biased reporting by the VOA seriously; she added that she
also remains concerned that perceptions of bias may have
spilled over into outright harassment of local VOA
stringers, noting the October 26 attack on one.

¶3. (SBU) The State Minister responded that he knows that
freedom of speech and of the press make GOE complaints on
the subject “a delicate matter,” and that he hoped his
letters did not convey a message not intended, namely that
the USG should in some way control or manage VOA reporting.
Instead, he said, they were intended to alert the Charge
that the VOA is “not working as a news outfit,” but was
instead “carrying out political activities intended to
damage the EPRDF and the Ethiopian people with no sense of
embarrassment or proportion.” He characterized VOA Amharic
reporting as deeply imbalanced, saying that it intentionally
sought out interlocutors who would comment negatively on the
GOE; as an example, Tekeda cited recent stories that
included accounts by weeping family members of those killed
and detained in recent unrest. He said that only an Amharic
speaker could understand how deeply embedded the VOA’s
partisanship was in the Amharic language.

¶4. (SBU) The Charge answered that she looked on his
letters as a call for action; she said that she had already
sent a request (REFTEL) seeking an impartial review of VOA
Amharic reporting. She added that the Embassy had already
reviewed in detail the instance of perceived bias included
in the State Minister’s first letter, and noted that the
English translation provided by the Ministry did not fully
reflect the Amharic used in the broadcast, which did (unlike
the Ministry translation) source a call for security forces
to disobey orders to an opposition leader interviewed, and
so was not a direct call from the VOA for such action.

¶5. (SBU) The Charge said that the increasing controversy
over VOA Amharic reporting had indicated to her two
problems, one the GOE’s and one the USG’s. The GOE’s
problem, she said, was that internal efforts to control the
flow of information paradoxically magnify the importance of
VOA Amharic reporting; the lack of non-state media,
especially electronic media, guarantee the VOA an audience.
That so much VOA reporting focuses on opposition activities
is a result not only of VOA having good sources among
opposition leaders, but also GOE inaccessibility. The GOE,
she said, does not do well in getting its side of the story
out, making the appearance of one-sided reporting to some
extent inevitable. Perhaps, she posited, the GOE needs a
spokesperson who could persuasively and proactively present
its policy and actions.

¶6. (SBU) The USG problem, the Charge said, is that there
may in fact be a balance issue, but that, if so, much of it
comes from lack of access and the resulting inability to
report the GOE side. She urged the State Minister to
“really think about how you get your message out.”

¶7. (SBU) The Minister said he did not “disagree that the
Government and the ruling party do not do well,” but
attributed it, not to an apparent inability to present its
case, but to letting private papers “have their way for 14
years,” and not more actively moving forward on longstanding
plans for a state-run press council and journalistic code of
conduct. As a result, he said, “they have been free to
wreak havoc.” In regard to the VOA, he lamented that the
Amharic service “could have played an important role” in
inspiring Ethiopians, but was instead “part of the very ugly
scene in Addis Ababa.”

¶8. (SBU) The State Minister lamented that “a few people”
in the Diaspora have been playing a “zealous,” negative role
“with no inhibition.” He said that this was not isolated to
the U.S., and cited examples in South Africa of opposition
supporters there intimidating pro-government Ethiopians and
Ethiopian-owned businesses. Speaking of oppositionist
members of the U.S. Diaspora, he said, “they provoked us,”
adding that their support empowered the hardest-line
elements among the opposition and that “the Hailu [Shawel]
types are beyond the pale.” He praised USG statements on
Ethiopia, but said he felt recent ones “have been watered
down a little,” and added that he hoped that, despite
pressure from within the U.S., they would not become less

¶9. (SBU) COMMENT: The question of VOA Amharic reporting,
along with the flow of information to and within Ethiopia
more generally, is clearly much on the minds of those in
official circles here. The GOE remains focused on issues of
control and restraint, however, rather than positive
engagement and outreach. END COMMENT.

[Ambassador Vicky] HUDDLESTON