By Dawit Ashenafi
(Addis Voice) The Voice of America (VOA) has finally said that investigation into the contentious August 12 report by Henok Semaegzer Fente on the decision of Azusa Pacific University (APU) to cancel an honors ceremony for Hailemariam Desalegn found that it was incomplete and did not meet VOA’s standards of journalistic quality.
Kevin Lynch, VOA’s Director of Public Relations, noted in a letter that VOA’s management had asked the Office of Performance Review (OPR), an office within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), to conduct a “thorough investigation” into the the controversial story aired on VOA Amharic.
In the letter Lynch wrote to journalist and activist Abebe Gellaw, who had lodged formal complaints about the distorted story, he said it was established that the reason given in the VOA report for the cancellation of the honors ceremony was incomplete as it “omitted a key detail that the university was monitoring the Prime Minister’s human rights record.”
“The omission did not meet VOA standards for journalistic quality but may have been inadvertent,” Lynch said quoting the BBG finding. The VOA PR chief also indicated that APU’s spokesperson, Rachel White, did not validate Fente’s report that the university cancelled the event just because he called to say that he could not attend the honors ceremony.
Henok Fente had reported that the Prime Minister told the university that he had to return to Ethiopia despite the fact that he came to the U.S. on August 4th while the event was slated for July 31.
Lynch further said that such a serious omission is “a reminder of the importance of abiding by strong editorial review of stories prior to air.” The story was allegedly aired without proper editorial review by the managing editor of the Amharic service, who exhibited poor editorial judgement by endorsing and defending the distorted story.
Responding to the findings, Abebe said he commends the investigation and welcomes the key findings that the story was not only incomplete but also below VOA’s standards of journalistic quality. However, he underlined that the that the probe certainly lacked rigour. “The investigators did not address some of the key elements of the complaint. They did not also speak to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) or myself. Had they done so, VOA would have taken full responsibility for the blunders and taken corrective measures,” he said.
“On the positive side, VOA has in a way accepted that the story was distorted as it was incomplete and below VOA’s journalistic standard. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept that the distortions were not deliberate after repeated efforts by the same person to discredit and undermine the important work I do as a journalist and an activist using VOA as a weapon, ” he said.
“Fente’s biased and distorted reporting in stories that I was part of did not happen once. It happened three times. I had formally complained last year about the same tactic he employed to mislead VOA Amharic listeners about another sensitive story,” he said. “It should also be noted that the August 12 story contained not one but multiple inaccuracies and distortions that were not addressed by the probe. There is also the issue of a fabricated letter that I never wrote but Fente quoted on air from “my letter” to APU, which was never written or sent,” he explained.
Abebe says that VOA has so far failed to produce the said letter attributed to him and quoted in Fente’s story. “As far as I know, it was a totally irresponsible and dishonest fabrication,” he said.
“Given the fact that there have been multiple complaints from various sections of the Ethiopian Diaspora against Fente’s spins, distortions and biased reporting, I strongly believe that the distortions and omissions were not only deliberate but also malicious,” he said. Fente, whom credible sources say was a member of the ruling party while in Ethiopia, is openly a supporter of dictatorial regime.
According to Abebe, the journalists involved in the production of the story failed to investigate the matter, which is a basic journalistic duty even without the VOA Charter and journalistic code. The Charter clearly states that VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work.
“In this particular case, where is the accuracy, objectivity, fairness and balance?” he asked. “There was none as Fente and Peter Heinlein were more eager to misinform, distort, defame and kill another important story than reporting the truth.”
Abebe indicated that the VOA Amharic’s report on BBG’s findings was also misleading and borderline censorship of the findings. The report tried to leave the impression that BBG endorsed the contentious report, which was presented as faultless in the Amharic report.
VOA Amharic reported on September 8 that the BBG investigation did not find any serious problem. “The information VOA Amharic Service presented in that story about Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was correct even if it did not include more information to explain the story,” the report said.
“This is like censoring the most important finding, that the story was incomplete and omitted a key fact that the APU was reviewing the PM’s human rights record and that the omission did not meet VOA’s journalistic standards of quality,” Abebe said.
In a similar manner, the message of VOA’s director, David Ensor, which he sent to VOA Horn of Africa services on August 25 and appeared to be aimed at reassuring its Ethiopian listeners, was distorted as the story omitted key details including the fact that the director had an important message to the listeners.
Abebe says that he would request VOA management to look into why such misreporting and misrepresentation happened on two occasions at a time when allegation of deliberate distortions became an issue at VOA Amharic. According to reliable insiders, on both occasions Peter Heinlein and another VOA staff member were involved in framing both misleading stories.
While the Tigrigna version properly included all the necessary details the Amharic version left out almost all the key details in the message. This is indicative of the fact that there are people in VOA Amharic that seem to be committed to manipulating not only the stories but also the millions of listeners that trust VOA as a reliable and accurate news source. “I grew up as an avid VOA listener. It was one of the broadcasters that shaped my conscience especially during the dark time of the military junta. VOA served Ethiopia as a candle of truth. I am very grateful to that. That is why I feel that VOA must maintain and restore its credibility and reputation,” Abebe said.
Abebe said he would take further steps and actions until justice is done and a corrective measure is taken. “The last thing I will accept is an inconsequential probe. Someone must take full responsibility for the damages and harm caused,” he said.
APU’s leadership decided in a meeting to cancel the honors ceremony and revoke the honor it had already bestowed on Hailemariam Desalegn after it reviewed gross human rights violations under his leadership, a reality that conflicts with the Christian values of the university and its “God First” motto.
ESAT TV and Radio Special Reports on the distortion scandal
By Dawit Ashenafi