America’s voice to the voiceless

Three VOA staffers read news live

VOA Afaan Oromo on the air Photo Credit: Mohammed Ademo / Global Newsroom

In Ethiopia, the government controls all domestic media and blocks websites critical of those in power. One tactic for keeping media in line is imprisonment; the Committee to Protect Journalists calls Ethiopia one of the leading jailers of reporters on the continent. Threats and intimidation have forced more than 70 Ethiopian journalists into exile, where some write political blogs – whose words can’t be read in Ethiopia.

That leaves Ethiopia’s 82 million people almost entirely cut off from independently reported news.

“Besides what the government provides,” said Seeye Abraha, a former Ethiopian defense minister and current fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, “the Voice of America is one of only two sources of information in the country.” The other is Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio. Unlike VOA, which broadcasts in three Ethiopian languages, Deutsche Welle only has a one-hour daily news program in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.

“VOA is the only source of truth,” said Roba, a health professional in Addis Ababa, who asked that his full name be withheld because he feared retribution. The Voice of America, he said, “offers information about the economy and politics that we can’t find in the local media.”

Conceived during World War II and long considered a weapon in the Cold War fight against communism, the Voice of America was set up to bring comprehensive news about international affairs and America to people all over the world – particularly those living behind the “Iron Curtain.”

That mission might seem an anachronism today. Only a handful of countries still cling to communist ideology, and the Internet brings news instantly to global audiences.

But Internet access is severely limited, even blocked, in some countries – often the same countries that also sharply limit press freedom. So the need for VOA has not changed, said Jeffery Trimble, executive director of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA. What’s shifted, said Trimble, are “the places, techniques and audiences” that VOA targets.

Africa, for example, had no VOA service until the 1960s, when the wave of independence began on the continent. Today, about 50 percent of the 125 million people who follow VOA on radio, television, and the Internet are in Africa.

“It [VOA] is able to provide a free flow of information in countries where the government is hostile to free flow of information,” said Gwendolyn F. Dillard, director of the VOA Africa division. “That would be true, for example, in Zimbabwe or Ethiopia.”

With daily broadcasts in 13 languages, the Africa division covers the entire continent with news and features, as well as programming devoted to health and economic development issues.

VOA’s Horn of Africa service broadcasts to Eritrea and Ethiopia daily in three languages: Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrinya. Afaan Oromo is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia while Tigrinya is spoken in parts of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. The service offers 12 hours of original radio programming each week, available via shortwave radio, television and on the Internet.

About 10 percent of Ethiopia’s population listens, according to Michael Collins, VOA’s acting Horn of Africa division chief. That makes the VOA audience smaller than the audiences for state-run TV and radio, but a survey by the Broadcasting Board of Governors last year found that VOA’s programming was the most trusted in Ethiopia.

A new VOA initiative seeks to increase audience engagement, with “a two way conversation,” said Trimble, “not just push information out about ideas, in particular about the U.S. and its policies.”

As part of that initiative, all three Ethiopian language services have launched listener call-in shows, enabling Ethiopians to have a public exchange about sensitive issues such as economic inflation – a topic rarely addressed in local media. Last month, during Ethiopian Easter, the Afaan Oromo program asked listeners about food price inflation. Callers were very vocal with their discontent.

“I can’t say we are living,” complained one caller, listing individual food prices that he said were not affordable for many Ethiopians. “We are struggling between life and death – it’s better to ask, not how, but whether, we are alive.”

Another caller blamed rising food prices on increased costs farmers must pay for government-subsidized fertilizers. “The price of fertilizers are more than what we produce and offer to the market,” he said. “We are not breaking even.”

More recently, VOA’s Amharic service devoted significant airtime to protests staged by Muslim activists against government interference with religious affairs. Local media ignored the protests.

On April 21, VOA brought together a religious scholar, Ahmedin Jebel, who represents the activists, and Sheik Azam Yousuf of Ethiopia’s Islamic Affairs Council. Jebel told the VOA audience that a huge crowd – at least a million, he estimated – had rallied in Addis Ababa the previous day against “forced” indoctrination of Ahbash’s teachings and to demand the resignation of government-chosen leaders of the Islamic council. Al-Ahbash is an Islamic movement with origins in Lebanon founded in 1980s by Ethiopian scholar Abdullah al-Harari. The Muslim community, said Jebel, should be allowed to elect its own religious leaders.

Sheik Yousuf accused Jebel of exaggerating the size of the demonstration. He also rejected the protestors’ demands as baseless.

“We were elected by the people,” said Yousuf, adding the 2005 elections were postponed because it coincided with national elections. According to the council’s constitution, leaders are elected every five years but the last election was held in 2000.

Such debates are a welcome opportunity for open discourse, said Columbia University student Jawar Mohammed, who grew up in Ethiopia.

“VOA is an alternative source of news and views to the existing state-run and [diaspora-based] opposition radios,” said Mohamed. Both state and diaspora media are highly partisan and propagandistic, he said, making VOA a “vital” option.

Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally in the war on terror, and at times the Ethiopian government has sought to leverage its strategic importance to force the VOA to soften its coverage. After the disputed 2005 elections and violent antigovernment protests in which an estimated 197 people died, Ethiopia charged five Washington, D.C.-based VOA journalists of Ethiopian descent, in absentia, for attempting to overthrow the government by creating havoc.

In 2008, during a meeting with VOA’s Horn of Africa Chief David Arnold, Minister of Information Bereket Simon accused VOA of encouraging violence in Ethiopia, according to a cable made public by Wikileaks. “It is a biased and prejudiced media outlet” which “operates with a cold war mentality” Simon charged, adding, “Do we even need VOA in Ethiopia?”

VOA’s relationship with the government of Ethiopia has since soured. The government blocks VOA’s website and occasionally jams its radio broadcasts.

The government also apparently continues its private complaints. Last year, diaspora-based Ethiopian blogs published a 42-page document, apparently written by Ethiopian government officials, that complained VOA covered Ethiopia in a negative light. The document included a list of opposition figures whom the Ethiopian government said should not be invited on VOA’s current affairs programs.

According to one blog, Addis Voice, the Ethiopian government sent the document to the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa.

A June 23, 2011, report by VOA’s Amharic service confirmed that the Ethiopian government had given a U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors delegation a list of names of its critics, demanding they be kept off the air as a precondition for VOA to expand service in the country. The original broadcast of that report has since been pulled off the VOA website but is still available on the Addis Voice blog.

Collins, the acting Horn of Africa chief since January of this year, said he was “not aware of any list” of opposition figures sent to VOA by the government. But “the government of Ethiopia, is occasionally, even frequently, unhappy with VOA and the way we report on some stories,” he said.

To get around censorship in Ethiopia, VOA has added radio frequencies, making it more difficult to jam its services. Since 2010, VOA also transmits the audio of its daily broadcasts via Arabsat, a regional satellite television network, to get around the blockade, said Trimble.

Today, VOA broadcasts in 44 languages to more than 125 million people worldwide over the radio, television, and the Internet. But why spend more than $700 million every year on a service best known for combating communism, when only a handful of countries still cling to that ideology?

Because, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the 70th anniversary of VOA last year, “Time and time again, you defy foreign governments that seek to stifle your signal, piercing through Iron Curtains and electronic ones, for the sake of illuminating the enduring strength of our democratic values.”

After the BBC World Service axed some of its language services amid budget cuts last year, VOA became the world’s leading global broadcaster in terms of its global audience, according the Guardian.

Although its global reach has grown over the years, the VOA itself is not immune to budget cuts. In its fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress, the Broadcasting Board of Governors requested a four percent decrease from the previous year.

The $720 million proposed by the board will result in “program, transmission and staffing reductions at the Voice of America” and other broadcasting services. As a result, VOA’s Greek and Cantonese language services, which the board said had negligible impact amid a saturated the media market, would be eliminated. The proposal also calls for restructuring administrative operations.

In the meantime, in the Horn of Africa and other countries where press freedom is muffled, the VOA services remain fully funded.

Mohammed Ademo is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@OPride).