VOA boss bans note-taking at staff meeting
-Another file deleted from VOA Amharic audio archive
By Abebe Gellaw
The controversy over censorship and maladministration at the Voice of America (VOA) took a bizarre twist yesterday as the Director of Africa Division, Gwen Dillard, forbade staffers from taking notes at a meeting she held with employees at VOA Horn of Africa section, reliable sources told Addis Voice.
Ms. Dillard, who was said to be visibly nervous during the meeting, told a roomful of journalists and support staffers that she decided to take the measure as she “was quoted verbatim” in an Addis Voice investigative report, VOA censorship chief revealed. The story alleges that Ms. Dillard has emerged to be in charge of censoring the VOA Horn of Africa Section including the popular Amharic service.
The Africa Division Director warned staff members that leaking information on the internal matters of VOA again would have serious consequences. After Addis Voice named Dillard “VOA censorship chief” based on facts, she launched her own inquiry into the leaking of her censorship orders to staff members.
Leaking information to journalists is as old as journalism itself and is lawful in countries like the United States unless the information is state secret that jeopardizes national security, said a law professor. Alemayehu Gebremariam, a constitutional law attorney and professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, noted that the Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits retaliation against a federal employee for disclosing illegal or potentially illegal conduct.
“It was for the first time in my entire life that I attended a meeting where taking notes was forbidden. VOA is becoming a little police state. After so many years as a journalist, I felt like a kid being taken care of by a super-nanny,” said one of our sources. The source felt that Dillard went too far to the extent of infringing upon the basic rights of federal government employees.
“Some of us are proud of the freedom we enjoy as American citizens. I find the whole situation disturbing,” another source added.
The meeting that took close to an hour was mainly focused on the content of the Amharic service. Dillard told staff to do more people-focused programming and should cut down the number of issues and stories that focus on political affairs. But some staff members pointed out that in a country like Ethiopia, where people live under a repressive government, politics pervades all aspects of national life. Some others also raised the fact that the greater portion of VOA Amharic programs is already nonpolitical and tried to convince Gillard that coverage on politics should continue.
Dillard said that VOA would like to focus more on nonpolitical matters and gave some instances. According to her, programs and reporting focused on education, health and development would be more beneficial to listeners. As an example, she said that a schoolgirl must have a chance to talk about her interests and future aspirations. Dillard also said that training would be made available to help journalists produce such “people-focused” programs and stories.
Dillard noted that such an approach to VOA coverage was not new and had already been communicated to former Horn of Africa Chief, David Arnold, who was controversially suspended after he exposed the demands of the Meles regime to banish a list of vocal critics from VOA airwaves. Despite the fact that Arnold has been reinstated at VOA, he has been transferred to the English section. Dillard said at the meeting that a new Horn of Africa chief would start work within eight days. The new chief will be “very interesting”, she informed staffers.
“The main problem with our bosses is that they do not still get it why VOA is a trusted broadcaster in Ethiopia. They have ignored the fact that the popularity of the station is due to the fact that we broadcast uncensored news and views to a nation that has long been silenced by authoritarian rulers,” said the sources.
“If VOA decides to go down the drain to join the propaganda outlets of the Ethiopian government by censoring news and opinions, I do not think that people would be interested in its broadcasts. I am deeply concerned over this direction that can make VOA irrelevant to most Ethiopians,” the source added.
From June 21 to 28, three Broadcasting Board of Governors and four senior VOA staff members, including Arnold, visited Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Nigeria. Though it was reported that the delegation discussed matters related to the jamming of VOA transmissions to Ethiopia, the greatest threat especially to VOA Amharic is internal censorship and information filtering. VOA Horn of Africa service has faced one of its worst crises after the suspension of David Arnold for telling the truth accurately and the deletion of news files that contained no factual errors.
One of the orders given by Dillard to the Horn of Africa section is not to broadcast any listeners’ comment on the current controversy rocking VOA. On Monday July 18, one out of hundreds of comments on the issue was aired. Addis Voice has later been informed that the July 18 audio file was deleted from VOA Amharic webpage as bosses have appeared to be too nervous to take criticisms and allegations against questionable conducts at the station that are contrary to the missions of VOA.
Ethiopian journalist Sisay Agena says he was shocked and disappointed to see the Voice of America gaining bad experience from oppressive regimes. “It is sad to know that Ethiopians are being censored by their own government as well the Voice of America, a broadcaster which had the trust of the people of Ethiopia for providing uncensored news and opinion,” he noted.
Meanwhile, VOA has refused to answer some questions posed by Addis Voice in relation to the censorship scandal that has ruffled feathers up to the offices of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is an agency of the US government that oversees its civilian international broadcasting, including the VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí. The mission of BBG is, “To promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective, and balanced news, information, and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas.”
On Monday, July 18, Addis Voice emailed a few questions to VOA Public Relations Department. Initially we were told that the Acting Director and Executive Editor, Mr. Steve Redisch, should approve the replies. Despite the fact that we have repeatedly called the PR office to get a reply the consistent answer we have received is a short sentence: “We do not have an answer today!” Our repeated efforts to speak to VOA PR Director, Mr. David Borgida, have not materialized.