A teachable moment for ESAT and supporters of ESAT.
ESAT has been embroiled in recent controversy over statements made by one of its commentators concerning alleged evidence of wrongdoing by H.E. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when he served at the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency well over a decade ago.
The alleged evidence was discussed by a certain ESAT commentator in a form which could be described as sensational and tabloid. The commentator declared with brazen assurance that he has evidence on PM Abiy that is “shocking” and if revealed could potentially create a political crisis in the country.
The commentator attributed the source of the alleged evidence to another well-known and respected ESAT journalist who categorically denied having such putatively damaging evidence on PM Abiy.
PM Abiy openly challenged any person who has evidence of wrongdoing on him during his service at the Information Network Security Service to make it public immediately.
No such evidence was made public.
The claim of the existence of “shocking evidence” and the categorical denial of such evidence by two members in ESAT has caused considerable controversy, confusion, heartache, anger and ill-will among many in Ethiopia and in the global Diaspora Ethiopian community.
Numerous supporters and friends of ESAT have asked me to speak out on the controversy. Some have asked me to make a statement and try to calm the waters. Others have urged me to condemn ESAT for making a patently false statement misleading the public and casting aspersion on PM Abiy.
Given the intensity of the controversy surrounding this issue, I have chosen to do what I preach: Speak the truth and focus my eyes on the prize, ESAT as an institution that was born of hard labor and our voice against tyranny for nearly a decade.
In my view, ESAT today is facing an existential crisis.
Many ESAT supporters are questioning whether it is worth their while to support ESAT. That concerns me deeply.
I have always believed ESAT is an Ethiopian Diaspora treasure.
ESAT is not something we support one day because we like what some individuals say and withdraw our support the next day when we hear something we dislike.
ESAT must be supported because it is and has been a vital force in press freedom in Ethiopia.
But I cannot ignore the outrage expressed by an important segment of the ESAT extended family in the recent controversy. There are many who feel betrayed and misled by ESAT in the recent controversy.
The outcome of this controversy, without an open and sensible dialogue, could have a lasting negative effect on ESAT and damage it as the robust and independent voice of the people.
The accusations and charges in the recent controversy are numerous and varied and fall along a wide spectrum of editorial, management, professional and ethical issues. Among these include claims that
ESAT does not even follow its own editorial policy about fairness and accuracy in reporting.
ESAT is hiding evidence they do not want the public to see.
ESAT lies through its teeth.
ESAT does not have a structure of accountability. We don’t even know who is on the Board of ESAT . That Board has been dormant and made no statements or taken any action on the current controversy engulfing the organization.
ESAT operations are not transparent.
ESAT has become like Fox News feeding the public gossip and unsubstantiated claims.
ESAT is in disarray because it does not have strong leadership and is governed by a faceless and ineffective governing board.
ESAT has been hijacked by individuals without professional journalistic qualifications.
ESAT has become an anti-PM Abiy propaganda mill.
ESAT has become an extortion ring trying to blackmail PM Abiy with fake news about “shocking revelations”.
In this commentary, I am not defending the ESAT management or any individuals working there for any acts or omissions. .
But I am defending ESAT as a precious Diaspora institution that has been a source of light, enlightenment and hope for all of us for nearly a decade.
I am pleading with ESAT supporters and friends not to “punish” ESAT the institution for the faults and wrongdoings of any individual(s) acting in the name of ESAT.
Why should I care about ESAT?
When ESAT was first established in April 2010, I served as the chairperson of the Advisory Committee.
It was the worst of times.
In 2009, the ruling Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had enacted a so-called counterterrorism law and anti-civil society law shutting down the political space in Ethiopia and wiping out dissent and all opposition political activity.
Neither Diaspora Ethiopians nor the people of Ethiopia had an alternative means of getting information about the abuse of power, corruption and gross human rights violations of the TPLF regime.
I tried to explain the dire situation at the time in a video presentation.
It was in this night of darkness that ESAT was born.
I was present at the birth of ESAT.
It was a most difficult birth.
I know first-hand how many good freedom-loving Ethiopians made enormous sacrifices in time, money and energy to establish an information medium to give hope when Ethiopians were enveloped in the darkness of an outrageous ethnic apartheid system.
I know first-hand the excitement and optimism of the exiled journalists, human rights activists and others when ESAT made its first broadcasts.
I know first-hand how hard we worked in the early days to make ESAT an alternative source of balanced news reporting and analysis for all Ethiopians.
I also know how the TPLF regime tried to jam, slam and goddam ESAT from the air.
The TPLF threw everything they got at ESAT and spent millions to knock it off the airwaves.
But each time ESAT rose like the phoenix from the ashes of TPLF jamming stronger and tougher.
I care about ESAT today and write because I am deeply concerned that ESAT might self-destruct from self-inflicted wounds in the current controversy and do unto itself what the TPLF was unable to do to it in a decade spending millions of dollars.
Above all, I care about ESAT because I was the author of the ESAT Advisory Board’s May 2010 Declaration of Principles which set out my own and the advisory board’s hope and dreams for ESAT in the coming years and decades.
I have to speak up because I have a moral obligation to do whatever is in my power to ensure ESAT remains a vital force of press freedom for coming generations.
ESAT Advisory Board’s Declaration of Principles
The ESAT Declaration of Principles are available for any one to read.
When I wrote it and presented it to the advisory board, I was not simply concerned about ESAT.
I wanted the Declaration to be a robust and vigorous defense of universal press freedom:
Given the recent controversy, I want to share a few excerpts from that Declaration so that my readers and ESAT supporters and friends can appreciate today our hopes and dreams back then.
… The recent successful launch of the historic satellite television service to Ethiopia represents a giant step in the direction of freedom of information for all Ethiopians.
ESAT has come into existence at a time when the curtain of darkness draws down tightly on Ethiopia. ESAT is the result of the collective efforts of a small but diverse group of Ethiopians throughout the world who are deeply committed to the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Among the contributors to this effort include exiled Ethiopian journalists, human rights advocates, university professors, lawyers, entertainers, entrepreneurs, civic society leaders and others from a variety of professions, and individuals committed to fundamental democratic principles.
The ruling regime continues to use a so-called press law to criminalize the profession of journalism. Journalists, reporters, editors and other media professionals continue to face brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassments.
ESAT is founded on the simple conviction that a free press is essential to an informed and enlightened citizenry, government transparency and accountability and equitable socio-economic development. We believe that a threat to press freedom is a threat to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We reject the belief that by controlling what people read, hear and think, it is possible to control their hearts and minds.
Our unwavering support for press freedom in Ethiopia is principled and supported in fact. All of us at ESAT believe that a free and independent press serves as the eyes, ears and mouths of citizens in any society.
We pledge to make ESAT an outlet for free expression to all Ethiopians. Our doors shall remain open to all who believe in and support the establishment of democracy, protection of human rights and institutionalization of the rule of law in Ethiopia. We are not and will never be partial to any individual, group, program, ideology, profession or occupation.
The so-called shocking evidence that is the source of so much controversy
Recently, an ESAT commentator threatened to release damaging information on PM Abiy when he served at the Ethiopian Network Security Agency (INSA) well over a decade ago.
That commentator claimed he has “shocking information” on the prime minister.
He warned supporters of PM Abiy to back off because he has the “audio and transcription” that will reveal compromising and highly damaging information and potentially create a major political crisis in the country.
The commentator attributed the source of the alleged evidence to a well-known ESAT journalist who categorically denied ever having such evidence.
That journalist said he had an “informal discussion with an engineer who claimed to have worked for INSA over seven years ago”. The unidentified engineer told him “nothing that is shocking or astonishing about PM Abiy.” The engineer was no longer employed by INSA at the time of the interview. The engineer told him “PM Abiy was a good manager” and discussed the general operations of INSA.
The journalist confirmed he had knowledge that PM Abiy and others at INSA had opposed jamming of foreign broadcasts and suggested that was one of the principal reasons for the dismissal of the now prime minister from INSA by the late TPLF Führer Meles Zenawi.
The journalist further stated he has never met the alleged engineer who gave the interview in person nor is he sure that the engineer was who he claimed to be. The journalist merely took him at his word. Since the journalist could not corroborate the “engineer’s” statements, he could not present it to the public.
It is this interview that the ESAT commentator claimed to be the bombshell evidence of wrongdoing by PM Abiy while he was at INSA.
I have sought to identify the identity of the alleged informant engineer on my own.
While I cannot be sure, my best investigative guess is that he is one of the three individuals referenced anonymously as former Ethiopian government officials #8, #14 and #49 in a 2013 Human Rights Watch Report (p. 60).
I have carefully listened to the Amharic audio and read the English translation of the audio of the alleged evidence referenced by the ESAT commentator and the ESAT journalist.
I have read and evaluated the alleged interview from the perspective of the scrutinizing eye of a criminal defense lawyer who has substantial experience examining statements of police informants.
The statement of the putative INSA engineer appears to have been obtained in a casual telephone conversation.
In the interview, the alleged INSA engineer refuses to identify himself allegedly fearing disclosure. He spoke in guarded tone. He refused to give any specific details arguing such information if revealed could lead to his identification and possible retribution.
Much of what the informant says is based on hearsay and personal impressions of his work and his subjective assessment of others who worked with him at INSA.
The informant hedges on answering critical questions arguing that he revealed certain pieces of information, he could be easily identified as the source.
The informant makes a few references to Abiy Ahmed at INSA but makes no allegations of misconduct or wrongdoing. Indeed, the informant speaks of Abiy Ahmed’s extraordinary managerial skills.
I do not wish to dwell or spread the hearsay, gossip and speculations of a nameless and unidentified informant.
The statement of the journalist who had interviewed the informant is sufficient for me.
The burden is on the ESAT commentator who claimed to have had the “shocking evidence” to disclose it to the public if he so desires.
PM Abiy responded to the allegations of the ESAT commentator without equivocation:
INSA is an organization in which I have done things that make me proud. I have never done a shameful thing while I was at INSA. If any person has any evidence of wrongdoing on my part at INSA, it is their obligation to make it public.
The firestorm over the alleged evidence
Such is the tragic manner in which ESAT was plunged into a firestorm of accusation, condemnation and damnation.
That is how I began to be seriously concerned about the potential fallout of this controversy for the viability of ESAT.
There is no denying that many ESAT supporters and friends are outraged and deeply disappointed by the recent controversy.
To make it crystal clear, I do not have any problems with ESAT journalists and commentators expressing their opinions.
But I do have problems with those who want to invent their own facts and pass it on to the public under the official imprimatur of the ESAT organization and plunge the organization in a firestorm of controversy.
Those in the media wield great power to influence and shape public opinion.
When individual(s) abuse this power and breach the public trust by undermining the credibility of a media institution, the damage will be massive and long lasting.
That is why I decided to speak up and defend ESAT as an institution and plead with ESAT’s supporters and friends not to rush to judgment on ESAT as an institution because of the actions or omissions of one or a few persons.
Let us refrain from collective punishment
ESAT is not one person. It is an organization of committed individuals who have sacrificed so much to establish a worthy organization.
It is not fair to condemn an institution because of the mistakes or wrongdoing of one individual or a few.
We must not lose sight of the forest by looking at a few trees.
We must not be obsessed with one mistake and forget the years of good work and professionalism we have seen at ESAT.
I believe individuals at ESAT will come and go but ESAT as an institution shall go on.
While I do not condone inaccurate and false reporting in any form, I am pleased by the swift response to the controversial allegations within ESAT.
The fact that an ESAT journalist went public and corrected the record to me shows ESAT’s institutional commitment to journalistic professionalism and ethics.
By correcting the record and stating the correct facts, ESAT did the right thing by its supporters, friends and all others who follow its broadcasts. We must appreciate that.
We must not throw out the baby with the bath water or cut our nose despite our face. Nor should we overreact to one controversy and lose sight of the original purpose of ESAT.
It is wrong to punish the group for the mistakes of one or few.
When we react emotionally and viscerally from a position of anger and disappointment, we often fail to see that in pursuit of the bad we also unintentionally destroy the good.
We must be measured and proportional in our reactions.
We must aim for constructive instead of destructive criticism.
The reason is simple.
ESAT belongs to us. We own it because it exists with our support.
ESAT journalists, commentators, analysts and others who have their own programs have served us well over the years.
I support ESAT not because I agree with everything they do. I support them because of their independence, balance and professionalism.
Of course, they make mistakes from time to time. We should not be the first to cast stones.
If we support ESAT today because we like what they said or did and withdraw our support because we disagree tomorrow, we will never have an independent and robust media that will serve its purposes.
We must put things in perspective.
Individual misconduct in news organization happens even at world class news organizations.
I remember the case of a N.Y Times reporter named Jason Blair who had committed journalistic fraud, not once, but for years.
There was the case of Janet Cooke at the Washington Post who fabricated a non-existent 8-year-old heroin addict and won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
The famous CBS anchor Dan Rather lost his job over a story that alleged George W. Bush went AWOL during his time in the Texas Air National Guard.
In none of these cases did the public condemn the news organizations because they understood the organizations were themselves victims of the unprofessionalism and misconduct of their employees.
In all of these cases, however, the news organizations no longer retained the services of the offending journalists.
The same rule should apply to ESAT.
ESAT supporters and friends should not go after ESAT the institution. ESAT should take appropriate action and not make a travesty of the current controversy by trying to gloss it over.
Going forward, what can ESAT do?
I do not believe in the approach of “letting the controversy blow over”.
The current controversy in which ESAT is embroiled will not blow over. If not dealt with forthrightly and in a timely manner, the controversy will fester like a sore on ESAT and put its future in serious jeopardy.
There are things the ESAT leadership must do. There are things ESAT supporters and friends must also do.
What ESAT needs from its supporters and friends now is our support, not the fanning the flames of the controversy.
I would like to make the current controversy a teachable moment for all of us, especially ESAT.
Therefore, as a supporter and friend of ESAT and as a promoter and defender of press freedom everywhere, I shall make several recommendations to the ESAT leadership not only to prevent a recurrence of needless controversies but also raise and uphold higher standards of journalistic practices and ethics and ensure ESAT regains and sustains public confidence and support.
I do this only because I care about ESAT and I believe ESAT is a Diaspora Ethiopian treasure.
I also do not want to talk about just problems but offer concrete practical solutions to restore the credibility and vitality of ESAT.
Of course, the ESAT leadership is free to accept, reject or ignore any of my recommendations below.
But my conscience shall remain clear. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
As a friend of ESAT, I will not remain silent in its hour of need
I. ESAT leadership should undertake a full review of their editorial policies and standards, add or modify policies as appropriate and ensure that all members adhere to them.
The ESAT editorial policy states, among others:
All sources should be strictly checked for veracity. Documents presented as evidence should be double checked for accuracy. News presented should adhere to the highest standards of quality and professionalism.
Manifestly, this policy was flagrantly violated in the recent controversy. This one instance shows the lowest standards of journalistic quality and professionalism at ESAT.
I make this recommendation because many of people do not believe ESAT has clearly set policies and standards of journalistic performance. I also believe ESAT should remain fully independent and committed to accuracy in reporting. ESAT should not be a platform for its members to advance their personal or partisan objectives.
II. ESAT leadership should review its conflict of interest policy.
I have made a diligent search for ESAT’s conflict of interest policy without success. I should like to believe there is one in place.
Regardless, ESAT leadership should require all its employees and others engaged in its activities to sign a conflict of interest form to ensure its employees will uphold their fiduciary duty to ESAT at all times.
III. ESAT leadership should have a designated contact point, preferably an ombudsman, for supporters and others to register their complaints, give feedback and make their suggestions.
I make this recommendation because I have been told by some people they have been unsuccessful in their attempts to contact ESAT administration; others do not seem to know who to contact at ESAT.
IV. ESAT leadership should engage in a reconciliation process with its supporters and friends in a process I call “atonement and forgiveness” (a word that means at-one-ment). ESAT should be one with its supporters and friends. It should not be at a war of words with them, as some appear to feel. It is the moral duty of ESAT supporters and friends to forgive because that is the only way we can go forward at-one-ment with ESAT.
I make this recommendation because I believe at this critical time in ESAT’s existence, it is harmful to engage in further accusations and recriminations. Greater progress can be achieved when people who disagree set aside their anger and begin to walk in each other’s shoes and understand that they can advance the cause of press freedom through open communication.
V. ESAT leadership should create a governing board of directors reflecting the diversity of the Diaspora Ethiopian community.
I make this recommendation after having made a reasonably diligent search, without success, to find out the members of the Board of the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio.
Unless I missed it, there is no information on the identities or size of the governing board on the ESAT website. It is customary for non-profit organizations in the U.S. to disclose the names of their Board to the public. This should help improve public perception of accountability and transparency at ESAT.
VI. ESAT leadership should re-establish its advisory board to help guide the work of ESAT and avoid situations that could result in the breach of the public trust.
The ESAT website states, “ESAT has a 13-member independent advisory board comprised of individuals that have proven track-records of being advocates of democracy and rule of law in Ethiopia. The main function of the board is to advise and oversee ESAT’s professionalism and impartiality and its commitment to journalistic principles of accuracy, balance and fairness. (Emphasis added.)
But it begs the question whether the recent controversy may not have occurred or the damage caused controlled much earlier if the Advisory Board was indeed living up to its professed function. It would also serve the interests of accountability and transparency to disclose the names of the members of this and the governing board.
VIII. ESAT leadership should take appropriate action against any of its members who engage in reporting that is based on knowledge of false claims, willful and deliberate ignorance or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of a fact.
I make this recommendation because the recent controversy has hit a raw nerve among many ESAT supporters and friends.
If an ESAT member takes to the microphone and makes a factual statement that has no basis in fact or use the ESAT pulpit to advance one’s personal political agenda, such conduct must not be tolerated. Any ESAT member who, through gross negligence or recklessness, compromises the journalistic integrity of the institution must face appropriate disciplinary accountability.
Those who want to play in the political and journalistic space should make a choice to be in one or the other. If they choose the political space, that does not foreclose occasional appearances on ESAT programs to share their opinions. The alternative is to invite gross conflict of interest and unending controversy,
If journalists and commentators are allowed to take hard and fast political positions and use ESAT as their private platform, without balance and regard to facts, that will surely make ESAT not a media for news, views and entertainment but a battle ground for opposing groups in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora Ethiopia. That was not the intent when ESAT was founded.
VII. ESAT leadership should formally apologize to the Ethiopian people over the recent controversy and man up and accept responsibility.
The editorial policy of ESAT states that when erroneous reports are made, ESAT will issue “A formal apology, verbal or written will be issued to the aggrieved party. (Individual, group or government). If there is no aggrieved party, the apology will be issued to the viewers.
I believe an erroneous report was made in the recent controversy. ESAT should follow its own policy and issue a formal apology to its viewers, listeners, friends and supporters. As a political leader who has been unfairly maligned, PM Abiy Ahmed also deserves an apology.
It is a sign of courage and good will to say a mistake was made and ask forgiveness.
Plea for YOUR Support of ESAT
In the ESAT Declaration of Principles I wrote,
We believe it is our duty as freedom-loving Ethiopians to help deliver information and ideas of all kinds to Ethiopians regardless of frontiers. Ethiopians hunger not only for bread but also for truthful and accurate information to sustain for their hearts and minds. This is a great challenge and all freedom-loving Ethiopians must join the effort and become one of the thousand points of light shining on the information darkness blanketing Ethiopia.
We need your help NOW because “failure is not an option” in our historic efforts!
To me this statement rings just as true in April 2019 as it did in April 2010.
Withholding support from ESAT at this critical time is unfair and unwise. It is like punishing a child who gets into trouble by denying him dinner. The child learns nothing from the punishment and it does not teach him to behave well.
Positive reinforcement will help ESAT become a better and stronger institution.
It is said it takes 20 years to build a reputation and only 5 minutes to lose it.
It is infinitely easier to destroy than to build. It took 10 years to build ESAT to its current status. But how long will it take to destroy it? 10 minutes? 10 hours? 10 days?
The winners and losers if ESAT is no more?
If we become unwitting partners in the tearing down of ESAT, we and only we will be the losers.
The winners will be those guys sitting in Mekele dining on “tibs” and sipping French cognac.
ESAT has survived the slings and arrows of the TPLF for nearly a decade. But every time, ESAT has come out victorious.
But today ESAT has become a hot potato in Ethiopia and in the Ethiopian Diaspora.
There are many who see the invisible hand of the TPLF causing and manipulating the current controversy.
There are others who see the long dark shadow of the TPLF cast on ESAT.
I have never underestimated the diabolical schemes of the TPLF. I am never surprised by what is manufactured in the devil’s workshops.
The fact of the matter is that if ESAT fails no one will be happier than the TPLF.
After all, ESAT was in the forefront of the information war against the TPLF chronicling their crimes and corruption. The TPLF spent millions unsuccessfully trying to jam, slam and goddam ESAT off the air for years.
It will be payback time for the TPLF.
If ESAT fails because of the recent controversy or is significantly damaged, the TPLF will be dancing in the streets of Mekele.
I can imagine the TPLF bosses rubbing their palms and drooling at the mouth on the prospect an ESAT collapse. They just can’t wait to do victory laps in the streets of Mekele on the slightest news that ESAT is in trouble.
But ESAT will neither fail nor collapse. With a little help from its supporters and friends, ESAT will go on and on and on.
On a personal note
I suspect there may be some who may not welcome my analysis or recommendations.
I have never asked anyone for permission to make comments or share my opinions.
I have never backed down from expressing my views or speaking my truth on any subject of broad public interest.
I have spoken truth to Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the formidable late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and so many others on matters of public concern.
ESAT to me is a matter of great public concern among Ethiopians.
In this piece, I have made a genuine effort to analyze the controversy objectively and make constructive recommendations.
I would not have gone to great lengths to write this message to ESAT supporters and friends unless I was deeply concerned about ESAT’s predicament today.
ESAT has had previous controversies but never as deeply challenging as the current one.
If I am unduly alarmed by what I see and hear, I apologize to all.
But if my concerns are even partially valid, then there is much work of atonement, forgiveness and open dialogue to be done between ESAT members and leadership and ESAT supporters and friends.
ESAT shall overcome!