30 March 2010

Ethiopia and the Art of the Outrageous Statement

We are all accustomed to hearing political figures, especially from authoritarian countries, make outrageous statements.

But I think Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi may have uttered the most outrageous statement of all this past month when he compared Voice of America broadcasts to Ethiopia to the broadcasts of Radio Milles Collines, the infamous “hate radio” blamed for inciting the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Here is what Ethiopia’s state-run news agency quoted Meles as saying:

“We have been convinced for many years and that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as the Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism, and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”

Meles’ opposition to VOA broadcasts is being used as justification for Ethiopian jamming of VOA broadcasts. It now appears his government is expanding its censorship effort by blocking VOA’s website.

The U.S. government recently fired back at the Ethiopian leader. Acting State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid says Meles may disagree with the news carried by VOA but jamming VOA signals contradicts Ethiopia’s public commitment to freedom of the press. He says it also is in conflict with the country’s constitutional statement that all citizens have the right to freedom of expression “without any interference” and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, “regardless of frontiers.”

As for that vicious comparison between VOA and Radio Milles Collines, Duguid said this: “Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation…”

I only wish Duguid could have been even stronger in his response.

19 March 2010

Response to the Response to the Iranian Editors

Our response to the editors of six Iranian websites has elicited a number of comments – most of them on the Farsi-language link. In case you haven’t gone there, here are some of the English-language comments:

“When thousands of people have eyewitnessed Neda's death, you (VOA) have reported it. What is wrong with that? When (opposition Presidential candidate) Mr. Karoubi, and the parents of the people who were raped in Kahrizak (prison) have protested, you have reported it as well. What is wrong with that? When people of Iran are complaining for 30 some years, you are reporting it. What is wrong with that? And etc, etc, etc.”

“The fact that these sites (the six Iranian websites) have not been closed yet indicates that either they represent the government or have accepted to play the game by the current government rules. Consequently, they are not independent by any means. In my opinion, the conservative hardliner rulers of Iran have done more damage to our country than any other enemy we have had in our 3000 years of history.”

“Thank you very much for your short and efficient response to enemies of Iranians who struggle (against) the brutal regime ruling Iran.”

“Great answer, short and to the point. Keep up the good work.”

I have asked my colleagues to look for some critical comments that take issue with the response. Hopefully we will be able to post some of those soon.

11 March 2010

A Reply to the Editors of Six Iranian News Websites

A joint letter from the editors of six Iranian news websites came into the office the other day. It raised several critical questions about the way international news organizations have covered recent events in Iran. It specifically charged that western news reporters and reports are not “honest and professional.”

Why? Well, the editors note a case in which western media picked up an Iranian blog report on the death of a young Iranian woman, who was allegedly sexually abused while in custody after protesting the 2009 election. The editors’ complaint: “Do you think it is professional to spread such far-reaching news through an unknown blog?”

Then they cite the case of Neda Agha Soltan. The Iranian website editors voice suspicions about a young doctor seen in videos of her death. They ask: “Why did he travel to Iran five days before Neda's death from UK [Britain] and a day after the event he leave Iran to UK” where he was interviewed by the BBC. Iranian media have suggested the doctor was the killer, not security forces. Again the editors question the professionalism of western journalists for failing to look into alternative explanations for the young woman’s death.

The letter goes on to accuse BBC Persian and the Voice of America of allegedly encouraging anti-government protesters in Iran – a frequent complaint of Iranian officials. It specifically complains about VOA interviewing an Iranian terrorist, now in custody in Iran, who the editors claim was treated as a hero.

Now here is where the letter gets interesting. The Iranian web journalists say they wrote their letter “to defend the current realities in Iran, not [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad; you must note that most of us are among the critics of Mr.Ahmadinejad’s government.” They call on western news organizations to re-evaluate whether they have “been fair and impartial or not” in covering Iran.

It is signed by the editors of:

- Alef
- Farda
- HamshahriOnline
- Jahan
- KhabarOnline
- Tabnak

What’s interesting is that none of these organizations have been shut down by Iranian authorities, while several other media outlets inside Iran have been closed and some journalists arrested.

And this raises the question: are these editors trying to do the government’s work in a professional media guise? One could easily imagine a government official summoning the editors to a meeting and “suggesting” it would be in their interest to issue such an open letter to western media.

Because the facts simply don’t support their arguments or their contentions.

So let us throw back some questions at our Iranian editors:

1. Are Iran’s domestic media free and able to report objectively, accurately and comprehensively on the country’s affairs?
2. Are western journalists allowed unrestricted access into Iran and freedom of movement after their arrival?
3. Do Iranian authorities allow citizens to cooperate with foreign media –including providing western news outlets with news and pictures?

Of course, we know the answers are, in order, no, no and no. We would suggest the Iranian editors who wrote the open letter ought to get their own internal information house in order first before presuming to counsel their counterparts in the west.

We don’t minimize the difficulties any responsible journalist in Iran faces today in trying to survive professionally. But all journalists should ask themselves how far can they go and still preserve their self-respect. We note for the record many Iranian journalists have elected to leave their own country. We commend them for the sacrifices they have made to remain true to their principles.

Eds Note: a Farsi-version of this commentary is available on the web here.