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Cablegate: Ethiopia: Voa On the Hot Seat

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (U) SUMMARY: A November 15 meeting with State Minister
of Foreign Affairs Tekeda Alemu provided the opportunity for
the Charge to discuss the Government of Ethiopia's concerns
regarding reporting by the VOA's Amharic Service, as
well as larger issues of GOE press outreach and its
relationship with the private media (other topics discussed
reported SEPTEL). The State Minister's views on both issues
do not indicate that quick fixes are likely on either. END

2. (SBU) During a meeting called by State Minister Tekeda,
the Charge raised GOE concerns about VOA Amharic service
reporting; the State Minister hat send two letters on the
subject within the past two weeks (the first reported
REFTEL). The Charge said that the Embassy takes charges of
biased reporting by the VOA seriously; she added that she
also remains concerned that perceptions of bias may have
spilled over into outright harassment of local VOA
stringers, noting the October 26 attack on one.

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3. (SBU) The State Minister responded that he knows that
freedom of speech and of the press make GOE complaints on
the subject "a delicate matter," and that he hoped his
letters did not convey a message not intended, namely that
the USG should in some way control or manage VOA reporting.
Instead, he said, they were intended to alert the Charge
that the VOA is "not working as a news outfit," but was
instead "carrying out political activities intended to
damage the EPRDF and the Ethiopian people with no sense of
embarrassment or proportion." He characterized VOA Amharic
reporting as deeply imbalanced, saying that it intentionally
sought out interlocutors who would comment negatively on the
GOE; as an example, Tekeda cited recent stories that
included accounts by weeping family members of those killed
and detained in recent unrest. He said that only an Amharic
speaker could understand how deeply embedded the VOA's
partisanship was in the Amharic language.

4. (SBU) The Charge answered that she looked on his
letters as a call for action; she said that she had already
sent a request (REFTEL) seeking an impartial review of VOA
Amharic reporting. She added that the Embassy had already
reviewed in detail the instance of perceived bias included
in the State Minister's first letter, and noted that the
English translation provided by the Ministry did not fully
reflect the Amharic used in the broadcast, which did (unlike
the Ministry translation) source a call for security forces
to disobey orders to an opposition leader interviewed, and
so was not a direct call from the VOA for such action.

5. (SBU) The Charge said that the increasing controversy
over VOA Amharic reporting had indicated to her two
problems, one the GOE's and one the USG's. The GOE's
problem, she said, was that internal efforts to control the
flow of information paradoxically magnify the importance of
VOA Amharic reporting; the lack of non-state media,
especially electronic media, guarantee the VOA an audience.
That so much VOA reporting focuses on opposition activities
is a result not only of VOA having good sources among
opposition leaders, but also GOE inaccessibility. The GOE,
she said, does not do well in getting its side of the story
out, making the appearance of one-sided reporting to some
extent inevitable. Perhaps, she posited, the GOE needs a
spokesperson who could persuasively and proactively present
its policy and actions.

6. (SBU) The USG problem, the Charge said, is that there
may in fact be a balance issue, but that, if so, much of it
comes from lack of access and the resulting inability to
report the GOE side. She urged the State Minister to
"really think about how you get your message out."

7. (SBU) The Minister said he did not "disagree that the
Government and the ruling party do not do well," but
attributed it, not to an apparent inability to present its
case, but to letting private papers "have their way for 14
years," and not more actively moving forward on longstanding
plans for a state-run press council and journalistic code of
conduct. As a result, he said, "they have been free to
wreak havoc." In regard to the VOA, he lamented that the
Amharic service "could have played an important role" in
inspiring Ethiopians, but was instead "part of the very ugly
scene in Addis Ababa."

8. (SBU) The State Minister lamented that "a few people"
in the Diaspora have been playing a "zealous," negative role
"with no inhibition." He said that this was not isolated to
the U.S., and cited examples in South Africa of opposition
supporters there intimidating pro-government Ethiopians and
Ethiopian-owned businesses. Speaking of oppositionist
members of the U.S. Diaspora, he said, "they provoked us,"
adding that their support empowered the hardest-line
elements among the opposition and that "the Hailu [Shawel]
types are beyond the pale." He praised USG statements on
Ethiopia, but said he felt recent ones "have been watered
down a little," and added that he hoped that, despite
pressure from within the U.S., they would not become less

9. (SBU) COMMENT: The question of VOA Amharic reporting,
along with the flow of information to and within Ethiopia
more generally, is clearly much on the minds of those in
official circles here. The GOE remains focused on issues of
control and restraint, however, rather than positive
engagement and outreach. END COMMENT.

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