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Henok Semaegzer: Spin doctor or reporter?

January 16, 2013

By Ewnetu Tesema

There is probably no reporter in VOA Amharic service’s history, save Mimi Sibhatu, whose dubious and deliberately manipulative reporting skills has raised eyebrows and controversies as much as those of Henok Semaegzer Fente. Some of Ethiopia’s well-known dissidents and rights defenders such as Tamagn Beyene, Obang Metho, Dr. Berhanu Nega, Abebe Belew, Neamin Zeleke and Abebe Gellaw, among others, have complained at various times on his dubious reports that are mostly borderline misrepresentation and over-edited or censored broadcasts that reflect a burning desire to do spin on sensitive political issues. The recent Addis Ababa University student unrest in which Oromo and Tigrian students clashed is a case in point. One can say that he killed the story by focusing on non-issues and giving little air to those who were the victims of the repressive measures.

Henok’s recent interview with Abebe Gellaw demonstrated another spin by Henok aimed at misleading listeners. While Abebe clearly explained to him that the issue was not about an attempt on his life but was a plot to commit murder which was nipped in the bud, Henok tried to leave the impression on listeners’ mind that there was no “assassination attempt” as far as the FBI was concerned. Yes, but an attempt was not the issue at all. If the FBI is investigating a plot, not an attempt, why was it necessary for Henok to enquire about assassination attempt, as the plot did not develop into an attempt, as widely reported. It was confounding why Henok’s effort was clearly to imply that the allegations against Guesh, still under investigation for serious allegations, were frivolous. This is undoubtedly a dereliction of duty on the part on the dubious VOA broadcaster who has been repeatedly accused of distortion and misrepresentation.
The most serious misreporting or rather under-reporting by Henok was observed during the May 18, 2012 G8 Food Security Symposium. While the protest of Abebe Gellaw was arguably a newsworthy event in the high profile gathering from an Ethiopian perspective, his coverage barely mentioned what happened. He dwelt too much on what Meles and other dignitaries said without properly covering the protest against the late dictator.
As a result of his dubious reporting, Ethiopians across the world complained and VOA was forced to make an apology to its listeners. It also made a correction to rectify Henok’s blunders. What was even surprising about that particular reporting was the fact that Henok and Abebe were reportedly sitting next to each other at that meeting. Henok witnessed first-hand what happened but preferred to cut out the flesh and wasted time gnawing hard bone.
Dishonest tactic
After the public outcry against Henok was heard loud and clear, he was given a chance to address what all the complaints and petitioning against him were all about. He appeared on VOA’s “Straight Talk Africa on May 23, 2012. The host, Shaka Ssali, raised various questions to Henok but he tried his best to elusively dodge the controversies surrounding his reporting tactics and spins.
Shaka asked Henok about the lowlights of the event as far as he was concerned. Again in his skilful manner of evading serious matters, he focused on side issues and talked about the “tough” questions he asked and the disappointing answers he got from some unnamed attendees. Confused with his non-answer, Shaka raised a blunt question at the end of his seven-minute long interview with Henok.
“What about some Ethiopians who have been complaining that you attended the meeting but you sort of under-reported the event? What is it that you knew very important to them that you did not bring out?”
As usual, the artful dodger was not prepared for an honest answer. “They felt their numbers were downplayed but as you know, Shaka, once the President of the United States is in a meeting it is not possible to move around, go out and cover demonstrations outside and come inside. And from a news sense, I give premise [sic] to what the President of the United States says more plus there is [sic] also world leaders discussing issues of food security inside. I was covering that. If they were misrepresented…of course it was because of that. It wasn’t in a way to stifle their voice or trying to undermine their political activism.” How nauseating! Was that all? According to Henok, that was it!
ESAT not credible?
On July 30, 2012 after a lengthy investigation, ESAT declared that the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was dead, according to credible sources at the International Crisis Group (ICG). The journalists who did the investigation explained quite clearly that they had access to confidential information held by the group. ICG did not pointedly deny any of ESAT’s reports. It only said it did not have direct information on the dictator’s health and whereabouts. ESAT was vindicated when ICG published the report that ESAT had access to hours after the regime officially admitted that Meles was gone forever ending the global hunt for the late dictator.
Without spending a few minutes, Henok felt the authority to quickly discredit ESAT on 30th July. He twitted a brazen declaration that ESAT was not to be trusted. “This ICG Meles rumor is senseless. Tweeting all day knowing it was not true in the 1st place is a waste of time. ESAT=Not credible.”
As a journalist, he was expected to do a thorough investigation before putting out a statement on whether ESAT was credible or not. But he is not interested in reporting the truth without distorting and manipulating it to convey his devious messages.
The organization Henok represents as a journalist has a declared mission. The mission says: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” One may wonder why this VOA Amharic’s broadcaster from hell does not make an effort to live up to the missions of his employer? The misreporting, distortions and manipulations on the part of Henok are obviously harming the credibility of VOA Amharic. It seems being accurate and objective is mission impossible for Henok. He is clearly misrepresenting and distorting the voices of freedom loving Ethiopians. It may be time to get mobilized again to stop such harmful misrepresentations.
Awkward position
There are hardly any journalists who are completely neutral on many sensitive issues that affect the society they live. In countries like Ethiopia where the regime is the enemy of freedom, journalists take positions. Whatever their positions they are expected to stick to the facts to be as objective as possible. Henok, who was reportedly a member of the ruling party while he was working for Amre Aregawi’s Ethiopian Reporter, should at least try to be fair to the facts rather than doing clumsy damage-control spins for the tyrannical regime in Ethiopia.
The pompous reporter is clearly a misfit for the VOA, which has served Ethiopians during tougher times. I am personally grateful to beloved broadcasters like Tizita Belachew, Addisu Abebe and Solomon Kifle. I grew up listening to them. I raise my hat off to them.
But Henok should stop being the male counterpart of the notorious Mimi Sibhatu, who is in a better position as she runs her own shows after she was banished from the VOA. Henok may soon follow her footsteps as he is also working hard to open his own FM radio station in Ethiopia to compete with me. I think the two will make great competitors to spin facts. Good luck to him!

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