By Dawit Ashenafi
The Voice of America has removed Peter Heinlein as Chief of the Horn of Africa service after investigation into allegations of deliberate distortions and professional misconduct.
VOA Director David Ensor convened the section staffers last Friday and made a surprise announcement that Heinlein was replaced by his Senior Advisor William Marsh. The director told the gathering that Marsh would serve as an interim chief of the Horn of Africa service. It emerged that Heinlein was demoted to English to Africa with no managerial and administrative roles.
Heinlein had faced internal and external complaints of misconduct including recent allegation of deliberate distortions with regard to Azusa Pacific University’s decision to revoke an honor it had already bestowed on Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Heinlein played a key role in repeatedly crafting and broadcasting distorted and misleading reports. Some staff members of VOA Amharic had also filed complaints against Heinlein regarding ethical and administrative issues.
Journalist and activist Abebe Gellaw, who lodged formal complaints and coordinated a concerted campaign against Heinlein and Henok Semaegzer Fente, said that the measure vindicated no one but the truth. “Though such a measure is no cause for celebration, I am certain that it will greatly restore the quality and credibility of the section.”
“Journalism is a fact-based profession. Resorting to damaging fabrications and distortions is a disservice to this great profession. In this case, the facts and the subsequent events speak for themselves,” Abebe added.
An investigation conducted by the Office of Program Review (OPR), an office under the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG) that oversees US government’s international broadcasts, into allegations of distortions established that the contentious August 12 broadcast on VOA Amharic was incomplete. It also found that the segment was below VOA’s standard of quality journalism. VOA management reportedly looked into a number of issues including dubious sourcing and failure to properly correct glaring mistakes.
In what appears to be a bold cover-up effort, VOA Amharic, under Heinlein’s direction, also censored and under-reported Ensor’s statement. The VOA director sent the statement to the Horn of Africa section on August 25 to reassure listeners that VOA would investigate the allegations and take corrective measures if mistakes were made. In addition to a confusing 25-minute long “clarification and correction” broadcast on October 16, the BBG finding that the August 12 report was incomplete and substandard was also misreported.
Marsh, who is a highly experienced manager and journalist, served as Acting Chief of VOA Horn of Africa from 1997 to 2001. Since 2001 he has been serving as senior advisor to the director on policy and management matters. According to sources, Marsh was a popular and respected professional during his tenure as the section’s chief. Reporting directly to David Ensor, he is expected to take a series of measures to improve the declining quality of broadcasts and streamline the section, it was learned.
“We had a very difficult time in the last couple of years under Heinlein’s arbitrary rule. It is a relief that he is gone,” said a veteran staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Marsh is a consummate professional. I am sure that he will sort out the mess and restore our faith in VOA,”
Just like the volatile subregion it serves, the Horn of Africa section has long been plagued with crisis. Heinlein is the third chief to be removed from the position. Former chiefs David Arnold and Annette Sheckler faced similar fates. According to a staffer, maladministration and mismanagement issues under Heinlein and Sheckler were the most crippling in the history of the section.
Sheckler, who was suspected of secret connections with the TPLF regime during her tenure, later joined the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC as a senior adviser. According to her Linkedin profile page, she is currently serving as a consultant to the Meles Foundation, which is headed by the late dictator’s widow, Azeb Mesfin.
By Dawit Ashenafi