By Dawit Ashenafi
(Addis Voice) Two staff members of the Voice of America, Horn of Africa section, have recently attracted the attention of Ethiopians across the world. Henok Semaeger Fente and Peter Heinlein are not strangers to internal and external complaints. But the fresh allegations both are facing over an unverified, distorted and false story full of inaccuracies and dubious quotes aired in Amharic on August 12 have undoubtedly dented the credibility and reliability of VOA as a media institution.
The story appeared to be aimed at discrediting in one shot three Ethiopian voices, activist and journalist Abebe Gellaw, the Ethiopian Satellite TV and Radio and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE). But the VOA journalists never spent a few minutes to investigate the matter before discrediting and killing an important story. As a result of this stranger-than-fiction case, Ethiopian activists around the world are planning to launch a campaign to vent out their outrage. The first protest rally, which will also call out VOA to clean its house and restore its credibility, is planned for August 25th in front of the the State Department in Washington D.C.
Facts and fictions
On July 23, journalist Abebe published an exclusive story: “Hailemariam humiliated as university revokes honor”. It was picked up by major Ethiopian media outlets. ESAT Radio and TV also gave it extensive coverage based on the facts and information available. The story in English, which was republished by several Ethiopian websites and blogs including Addis Voice, reads:
“Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn faced a stinging humiliation as Azusa Pacific University (APU), whose motto is “God First”, has withdrawn an honor it had already bestowed on him. The university administration had to reverse its decision to honor Mr. Desalegn in light of gross human rights violations in Ethiopia being perpetrated by the regime he serves.
“The administration of the American evangelical university made the decision in an emergency meeting last Friday after this reporter raised a number of critical questions on whether honoring a human rights violator was consistent with APU’s core values and motto. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) also wrote a protest letter highlighting gross human rights violations being perpetrated by Mr. Desalegn and the TPLF-led regime he is serving.”
Abebe, who exposed the secret honorary ceremony, wrote the news after a thorough investigation. He quoted two APU sources in the story, an anonymous source and an APU spokesperson.
“Rachel White, APU’s Assistant Director of External Relations, confirmed exclusively to this reporter that the university has withdrawn the honor and cancelled the ceremony which was planned to honor him at APU’s Los Angeles campus.
“I can confirm that the event has been cancelled. The university evaluated current developments in Ethiopia including the latest U.S. State Department Human Rights Report,” she said. She also indicated that the recent high court decision to file terrorism charges against Zone9 bloggers and journalists was also one of the factors considered for the cancellation of the event to honor Mr. Desalegn.
“Nothing is as important as our motto God First. Any decisions we make have to be consistent with our motto and core values,” White noted. She also pointed out that respect for human rights is very important for the university. It is now confirmed that Hailemariam cancelled his trip to Los Angeles after the university communicated to him its decision to cancel the honoring ceremony.”
According to a university source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to give a statement on behalf of the university, APU’s administration unanimously agreed to withdraw the honor for Mr.Desalegn, whom it found to be an unsuitable honoree after evaluating not only the disturbing human rights situation in Ethiopia but also the potential negative publicity that the event was likely to generate. “It was a wise and timely decision, as the university was likely to face backlash if it publicly honored a human rights violator,” the source said. [Full story]
Cowboy journalism at VOA
Three weeks later, Fente, who has already been accused of distorting two previous stories related to Gellaw, aired a new version that claimed that the original news report was false. But it uses a dubiously conflicting quote from White. On the one hand she contradicts the key fact. On the other hand she was reported to have said that Abebe quoted her accurately.
During the Africa Leaders Summit in the United States, the California-based Azusa Pacific University had organized an honorary award for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Journalist Abebe Gellaw of Addis Voice had reported that the university’s decision to honor the Prime Minister was reversed because of the protest of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) and that of himself. Having talked to Rachel White, the spokesperson of Azusa Pacific University, our desk was able to confirm that the Prime Minister received a degree after completing his studies from the university. She said: [I quote] “Because he is the first leader of a country who graduated from our university, we had extended an invitation to honor him. But the Prime Minister phoned and told to us he could not attend the ceremony. As he explained that he had to return to Ethiopia, the event was cancelled.”
[Quote] “During that time, Abebe Gellaw called me and we had an interview. His report that quoted me was accurate. However, he has drawn his own conclusion in the article. In addition, he claimed in the article that we caved to his pressure. This is totally false,” she said.
In his protest letter [to the university] objecting to the decision of this educational institution, Abebe Gellaw said that under the leadership of the Prime Minister the Ethiopian government commits extrajudicial killings, imprisonments, beatings and corruption.
[Extract from Abebe’s forthcoming detailed report on the issue: “Lies, distortions and fabrications in the Voice of America]
When Abebe called Fente to complain and express his concern, he reportedly hung up the phone on him without talking to him. But Abebe said that he had a tense and lengthy conversation with Heinlein, who referred to White as the undisputed authority, despite the fact that she is a public relations officer promoting and protecting the image of APU. Even if that is the case, the issue was the absence of her voice and the lack of accuracy, verification, balance, objectivity and fairness of the story, contrary to what the VOA Charter and Journalistic Code require. White also declined to confirm or validate the VOA story.
In an email he sent to Heinlein on August 17, Abebe highlighted the inaccuracies and distortions in the contentious VOA story as follows:
1. “Journalist Abebe Gellaw of Addis Voice had reported that the university’s decision to honor the Prime Minister was reversed because of the protest of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) and that of himself.” [My story never says that the decision was reversed because of my pressure and that of GARE. It only mentions the fact that I posed and followed up eight critical questions and GARE sent a protest letter about the honoring ceremony. There was also plan to organize a protest rally at APU LA campus.]
2. “The Prime Minister phoned and told to us he could not attend the ceremony. As he explained that he had to return to Ethiopia, the event was cancelled.”
[The unverified reason mentioned as the cancellation of the event is totally inaccurate. The quote from Ms. Rachel White is dubious because it contradicts her public statements on the issue.]
3. “As he explained that he had to return to Ethiopia, the event was cancelled.” [How can the PM return to Ethiopia before he came to the U.S.? The APU event was slated for July 31st. He came to the U.S. on August 4, 2014 according to official government channels.] See Walta Information
4. “During that time, Abebe Gellaw called me and we had an interview.” [In fact, it was a lengthy process and I have contacted numerous sources. I first contacted APU on July 15. Called and emailed Ms. White numerous times to get answers to the eight questions I submitted in an email upon her request. She emailed me on July 19 to let me know that the event was cancelled. That was followed by a phone call from her on July 20 in which she explained to me why the university administration decided to cancel the event. The same day my other sources also confirmed and gave me the details I wanted to find out. On July 22, I called her again seeking clarifications. I learned that APU did not want to give details in writing. So it has not formally issued any statements on the issue.]
5. “However, he has drawn his own conclusion in his the piece.”
[Because Ms. White was not my only source, I did not draw any conclusions from her words. Even if that is the case, this is not something that is a sufficient reason for VOA journalists to declare such a politically sensitive story false unless it has an ulterior motive.]
6. “In addition, he claimed in the article that we caved to his pressure. This is totally false.” [I never claimed that in my story. It is false.]
7. “In his protest letter [to the university] objecting to the decision of this educational institution, Abebe Gellaw said that under the leadership of Prime Minister the Ethiopian government commits extrajudicial killings, imprisonments, beatings and corruption.” [This is a total fabrication! I have never written a single letter of protest to APU.]
It is now confirmed that Henlein was the one who “interviewed” White. But the APU PR officer has refused to acknowledge or confirm the quotes attributed to her. Pressed why he did not record her voice, which is the most important material for a radio broadcast, he reportedly claimed that she did not want to be on tape. That totally makes the whole VOA effort questionable. If she did not want to be on tape, that means the “interview” was off the record. But Abebe, whom Heinlein and Fente tried to discredit in a joint effort has produced two consistent voice recordings, one with himself and another one with a D.C.-based community radio in which she repeated the exact statement Gellaw quoted in his story.
Heinlein could not present any evidence whatsoever, voice or text, that can show that he had indeed interviewed her for a story. Fente also quoted a fabricated protest letter Abebe was said to have written. But it has now been proven that he never wrote a protest letter to the university. A protest letter was only written by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians (GARE) and was signed by its LA-based community organizer Dagnachew Teshome. Upon White’s request, Abebe emailed eight questions along with documents including the annual State Department Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. The questions and documents were considered in an emergency meeting that the university administration held to re-evaluate the honor and made a decision to revoke the honor all together.
White has so far declined to confirm VOA’s report and the quote attributed to her. Her recorded statements clearly detail the reasons why the university administration decided to cancel the event and revoke the honor. Nonetheless, VOA’s single-source story remains totally dubious, unverified, unfair and malicious. The VOA Journalistic Code clearly stipulates: “VOA news and programming must be rigorously sourced and verified. VOA normally requires a minimum of two independent (non-VOA) sources before any news writer, background writer, political affairs writer, correspondent, or stringer may broadcast information as fact in any language.”
The legally mandated VOA Charter was signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It clearly stipulates: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” The allegations the two are facing over this distorted story they jointly produced and broadcast to Ethiopia and around the world is extremely serious that needs to be investigated thoroughly as it is a flagrant violation of the Charter.
In spite of the fact that the producers were advised to talk to Abebe about his exclusive story, Fente did not make any effort to do so. The managing editor, Tizta Belachew, also compounded the problem by approving the single-source biased and distorted story for broadcast without proper editorial oversight.
According to multiple VOA insiders, Heinlein, the Horn of Africa Chief, is currently facing internal complaints from his own colleagues including Tizta Belachew for a pathetic habit of lying. They alleged that his habit of telling lies and fibs constantly makes it difficult for them to work under his supervision. This strange allegation seems consistent with the dubious nature of his “interview” with the spokesperson of APU.
Some of his colleagues also alleged, in another complaint, that they cannot work with him because of his oppressive managerial style to the point of denying them their basic freedom to do their work without undue interference. A couple of VOA Amharic veterans are also complaining that he discriminates them on grounds of age. Under U.S. law, age discrimination is as illegal as racial discrimination. The serious complaints against Heinlein, which appear much more stranger than fiction, are currently being reviewed by VOA Africa section heads.
In addition to that, former Ministre D’etat of Communications Affairs has alleged recently on ESAT radio that when Heinlein was a correspondent in Ethiopia, he advised the Ethiopian government to take tougher action against his own colleagues based in VOA’s headquarters in Washington D.C. Another prominent Ethiopian, who wants to remain anonymous, has also come forward with a damning allegation that Heinlein fabricated a damaging story and filed it for VOA from Addis Ababa that seriously caused him serious harm and distress. According to the prominent figure, Heinlein made up an announcement without even speaking to him. If called to testify, he is willing to speak about the serious incident that had negatively affected him.
Among Ethiopian Diaspora activists especially in Washington D.C. Fente is an outcast. They have repeatedly accused him of deliberate distortions. A simple Google search can vividly reveal the controversies on his reporting style. Abebe Gellaw had also lodged an official complaint on his reporting which tried to distort another sensitive story that concerned me. He now wants a review of that investigation as he has sufficient ground to suspect tampering with the outcome on the investigation.
Some activists had even launched a change.com petition to “stop Fente’s biased reporting” in June 2012. Their target was to get 500 signatures, but 1024 Ethiopians signed up within a few days. Another petition is now in the making. [Petition]
Despite the public uproar and immediate complaints by Abebe, VOA Horn of Africa, headed by Heinlein, has not even acknowledged its blunders let alone retracting the story and humbly apologize to the millions of its listeners that it misinformed in good time. VOA Amharic as well as the entire Horn of Africa Section are clearly facing leadership crisis. The VOA Horn of Africa ship is sailing in a stormy sea commandeered by a captain who is evidently irresponsible, incompetent and negligent, to say the least.
Abebe says that those who have united to maliciously cause harm and damage have lost their own battle. “Whatever the case, this is a pure case of abuse of power. They owe a sincere apology to the people of Ethiopia for this Distortion-gate, a blatant misinformation campaign using VOA as a weapon of distortion.”
(To be continued)
Editor’s note: Addis Voice will publish a series of stories and commentaries on VOA’s distortion-gate scandal.
By Dawit Ashenafi