Voice of America celebrates 98% sham election win by Rwandan dictator Kagame

BBG Watch Commentary EXCLUSIVE

In a news report that will delight every dictator and autocrat and their regimes from North Korea to Iran to Africa and Cuba, U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) offered what can only be described as a one-sided legitimization by the U.S. government-managed broadcaster of — what it called — “landslide victory” of Rwanda’s President Kagame. He won with claims of 98% of the vote in his favor, as reported by Rwanda’s electoral commission and repeated by VOA without any questions raised in the VOA report about the sham nature of democracy and elections in Rwanda. VOA report, which also failed to mention severe regime restrictions on media, could only be described as a Kagame puff piece when compared to BBC news reports, such as “Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – visionary or tyrant?“:

VOA: “Tonight we are very, very, extremely happy because he accepted our request [to lead the country],” said Fred Namania, a 30-year-old medical student, at the event. “And, we are looking forward to a lot of things being done in the next seven years.”

VOA: “‘At the end of the [new] seven-year term of his excellency, Paul Kagame, someone will continue after him,’ Kagame supporter Joseph Zorondera said after casting his ballot at the Mbandazi Primary School primary school outside Kigali.”

BBC: “…his opponents accuse him [Kagame] of being the latest in a long line of authoritarian rulers in Africa, who will win the 4 August election after his regime brutally suppressed the opposition and killed some of his most vocal critics – a charge his allies vehemently deny. …”

BBC: also pointed out that “His [Kagame’s] comments are ironic, given that the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders identifies him as a ‘predator’ who attacks press freedom, citing the fact that in the last two decades, eight journalists have been killed or have gone missing, 11 have been given long jail terms, and 33 forced to flee Rwanda.”

The BBC news report on the final results of the Rwandan presidential election prominently noted that “[Kagame’s] Critics – most of whom are outside the country – say he rules through fear.”

Online readers of VOA news in Rwanda should know that this puff piece by VOA, which comes close to glorifying the rule of President Kagame, does not represent any change of U.S. policy under the Trump administration. Some of the strongly Left-leaning VOA managers, editors and reporters are far more likely to refer to President Trump as a dictator, use F-words (obscene terms) to describe President Trump in public platforms, and compare Trump to Lenin, Stalin or Mao in VOA English news reports than to use the term dictator, autocrat or any negative description of repressive and autocratic rulers in countries such as Iran, Cuba, or Rwanda. For non-native English speakers, a “puff piece,” such as the VOA report on Kagame’s electoral win, is a journalistic form of puffery; an article or story of exaggerating praise that often ignores or downplays opposing viewpoints or evidence to the contrary.

The Voice of America is still firmly under the control of Obama administration officials whose questionable management of the organization has offended many pro-democracy activists, dissidents, journalists in countries like China and Iran and various ethnic groups in the United States. Because of allegations of censorship and biased, pro-regime reporting by VOA, Chinese Americans recently staged a mock funeral in front of the VOA building in Washington.

In another protest action, Iranian American women shouted “Shame” in New York when they saw an apologist for the U.S.-Iran Obama nuclear deal who is also a media personality and has frequently appeared as a guest commentator and host of VOA programs. Even the current Republican BBG Board chairman Kenneth Weinstein mentioned the New York incident in one of his tweets, but he together with other BBG Board members seems unable to force management reforms at the Voice of America still controlled by the Obama administration appointees. Voice of America director Amanda Bennett appears disengaged on the VOA content, one current BBG official who is critical of the agency’s top management, told us on condition on anonymity. Bennett’s deputy, Sandy Sugawara, also appears disengaged or unable to spot and correct obvious and frequent mistakes and violations of the VOA Charter.

Screenshot of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Kenneth Weinstein retweeting a video showing a Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting personality confronting anti-Iran regime demonstrators in New York with what appears to be an obscene gesture.

The VOA report on the Rwandan presidential vote is eerily similar to Soviet news reports on elections in the former USSR, when pre-approved communist party candidates also had won similarly sham electoral contests by more than 95% of the vote with more than 95% voter participation. However, it would have been unthinkable for VOA to post such a one-sided, naive, pro-communist regime news report during the Cold War.

If VOA had broadcast such a program during the Cold War, there would have been a loud negative reaction from U.S. media on both sides of the political spectrum. Such a VOA news report during the Cold War could have easily led to a resignation of the VOA director or at least a firing or reassignment of some senior managers. With the exception of more conservative U.S. media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, which had been highly critical of the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the organization has been either ignored in Left-leaning U.S. media or managed to place uncritical puff articles and interviews in newspapers such as the Washington Post, with which some of the current VOA executives have strong personal or professional connections.

The only other time when the Voice of America referred to dictators as democrats was during World War II when strongly pro-Soviet VOA officials and journalists, some of them communists, glorified Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who was at that time America’s military ally, and covered up his genocidal crimes.

The 2017 presidential election in Rwanda was a sham by any democratic standard, but the VOA report failed to point it out. VOA went even further and tried to legitimize, if not celebrate, President Kagame’s victory in every possible way in its one-sided news account.

The U.S. State Department’s “Rwanda 2016 Human Rights Report” points out the sham nature of any elections held in Rwanda under the current regime: “Due to restrictions on the registration and operation of opposition parties, citizens did not have the ability to change their government through free and fair elections.” The U.S. State Department report further notes: “The most important human rights problems were government harassment, arrest, and abuse of political opponents, human rights advocates, and individuals perceived to pose a threat to government control and social order; security forces’ disregard for the rule of law; and restrictions on media freedom and civil liberties.” The State Department report also notes: “Other major human rights problems included arbitrary or unlawful killings; torture and harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest; prolonged pretrial detention; government infringement on citizens’ privacy rights and on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; government restrictions on and harassment of some local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly organizations that monitored and reported on human rights and media freedoms; some reports of trafficking in persons; and government restrictions on labor rights; and child labor.”

In its 2016/2017 human rights report, Amnesty International noted: “In the run-up to presidential elections in 2017, the environment for free debate and dissent continued to be hostile.” In a report issued on July 7, 2017, “Rwanda: Decades of attacks repression and killings set the scene for next month’s election,” Amnesty International concluded: “Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front took power 23 years ago, Rwandans have faced huge, and often deadly, obstacles to participating in public life and voicing criticism of government policy. Rwanda’s history of political repression, attacks on opposition figures and dissenting voices in the context of previous elections, stifles political debate and makes those who might speak out think twice before taking the risk.” — Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) noted: “Despite a new media law in 2010 and efforts to develop Internet connections throughout the country, censorship and self-censorship are ubiquitous in Rwanda.” Rwanda ranks 159 in RWB’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. North Korea is last with the ranking of 180. Very few countries have less media freedom, which is necessary for conducting free and democratic elections than Rwanda, yet VOA failed to note this in its report which could serve as an excellent example to journalists as an exercise in self-censorship and non-existent editorial controls, if not much worse. RWB predicted: “The presidential election scheduled for August 2017, in which Kagame is using a constitutional amendment to seek another term, could easily expose the media to renewed tension.”

The Human Rights Watch reported: “The government continues to limit the ability of opposition parties and civil society groups to function freely and independently in advance of the August 2017 presidential elections. Pro-government views dominate domestic media. Journalists who dare to question the official narrative are harassed or arrested. The authorities detained people unlawfully in unofficial detention centers; some were held incommunicado and tortured.”

The VOA news report, while highly laudatory of Kagame’s victory, dismissed criticism of authoritarian rule in Rwanda with one sentence: “The government and ruling party have brushed off allegations from human rights groups that authorities have restricted freedom of expression and stifled political opposition.” The VOA report failed to provide any examples of repression against independent journalists and opposition politicians not approved by the regime.

As of 3:00PM Sunday, VOA English News still has not reported on the U.S. State Department’s statement on the outcome of the presidential election in Rwanda. The State Department’s press statement was released on Saturday.

Presidential Election in Rwanda
Press Statement
Heather Nauert
Department Spokesperson
Washington, DC
August 5, 2017

The United States congratulates the people of Rwanda on their active and peaceful participation in the presidential election held August 4. However, we are disturbed by irregularities observed during voting and reiterate long-standing concerns over the integrity of the vote-tabulation process.

We commend the Rwandan media for reporting on complaints of harassment of some opposition candidates and Rwandan citizens during the campaign. We likewise commend average citizens, the National Electoral Commission, and government officials for speaking out and addressing those complaints. We applaud the televised debate, while noting that voters’ understanding would have benefited from broader participation of the candidates themselves.

We remain concerned by the lack of transparency in determining the eligibility of prospective candidates. We hope the new electoral law to be debated in the next session of Parliament will clarify that process well before the 2018 parliamentary elections.

The United States stands by the people of Rwanda in their efforts to build strong democratic and inclusive institutions in order to ensure long-term stability and a democratic, prosperous future for all.

The 1976 congressional VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, requires the Voice of America to present news that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” It also requires VOA to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

The Voice of America is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John F. Lansing, former head of Scripps Networks and the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, who in a recent puff interview with NewBay Media’s Multichannel online platform was quoted as saying: “We are an independent agency of the federal government and by law there is a firewall that prohibits the government from interfering with the independence of any of our journalists or networks.”

What John F. Lansing did not say is that the Voice of America, now managed by VOA director Amanda Bennett, whom he had selected, has been hit with one scandal after another, the most spectacular of which is the loss of much of VOA’s former credibility in China after the senior management suddenly shortened a VOA Mandarin Service interview with a whistleblower Guo Wengui who wanted to expose corruption by Chinese communist officials. In another puff piece by U.S. media, Amanda Bennett was quoted by the Washington Post as saying: “’My concern coming here, since I came from a 35-plus-year background in media and had no interest in doing anything different, was to check historically how is the firewall respected,’” Bennett said, referring to the divide between administration objectives and journalistic decisions. ‘I talked to every director I could get access to … and they all said the same thing: It was taken very seriously.’”

What Amanda Bennett seems to have failed to learn is that the “firewall” does not protect the Voice of America from internal incompetence, bias and sloppy reporting caused by its own directors, other senior leaders, managers, editors and ideologically-driven, poorly-trained or compromised reporters. Most of the journalistic scandals in VOA’s history were caused not by interference from the White House or the State Department but by biased or partisan VOA officials and journalists themselves. The Obama-era selectee told the Washington Post: “They [Trump administration officials] have not just had zero influence on my coverage; they’ve never suggested anything.” We have to assume that Bennett is willing to take full responsibility for the one-sided VOA report on the election results in Rwanda.

At the very least, the VOA news report about Rwanda’s president should have mentioned the U.S. State Department’s general policy position that the Rwandans do not have the ability to change their government through free and fair elections.

The entire VOA Rwanda report appears to be an attempt to present a sham election and a fraudulent victory by a longtime Rwandan dictator as a triumph of democracy and good governance. BBG Watch offers some excerpts as well as a transcript of the full report as seen online on on the voanews.com website on Saturday, August 5. The VOA report was posted on the VOA website on August 4, but by late afternoon on August 5 it was showing only one comment, another indication that VOA English news service has long ago lost its ability to engage with its audiences abroad.

The Facebook post on the report had a few more comments, some of which were highly sarcastic about VOA reporting.

“The Ethiopian govt won the election 100% in 2015.”

“98% of the casted votes? Hmmm.. He must be a magician.”

“its not true at all!! all African countries elections ful of cheating, how 98% Big No!!!”

“Hey, just a paltry 2% dont like Kagame presidency! There must be booming progress at every stage in Ruanda[sic]”

VOA NEWS: “Rwanda’s electoral commission says President Paul Kagame has won a third term in a landslide victory.”

(…)

“The commission said partial results of Friday’s election had the president winning 98 percent of the votes.”

(…)

“Tonight we are very, very, extremely happy because he accepted our request [to lead the country],” said Fred Namania, a 30-year-old medical student, at the event. “And, we are looking forward to a lot of things being done in the next seven years.”

(…)

“Other Kagame supporters told VOA they aren’t looking for a president for life.

(…)

“‘At the end of the [new] seven-year term of his excellency, Paul Kagame, someone will continue after him,’ Kagame supporter Joseph Zorondera said after casting his ballot at the Mbandazi Primary School primary school outside Kigali.”

(…)

“The government and ruling party have brushed off allegations from human rights groups that authorities have restricted freedom of expression and stifled political opposition.”

(…)

“Kagame is widely credited with stabilizing the country after a 1994 genocide.”

(…)

“Kagame’s supporters point to developments like improved roads, more communities connected to clean water, and recently built schools.”

(…)

As of 2:30 PM EDT, August 5, there was only one comment under the VOA report on the voanews.com website.

It said: “…congratulation Mr Kagame for a peaceful election[.]”

###

VOA NEWS REPORT TRANSCRIPT

VOICE OF AMERICA

Copied from Voice of America, voanews.com website on Saturday, August 5, 2017, 3:30 PM EDT.

Rwanda’s President Kagame Wins Landslide Victory | VOA

August 04, 2017 11:57 PM

Zack Baddorf

[Photo from Reuters in VOA report is not reposted here.]

Rwandan President Paul Kagame of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) waves to his supporters during his final campaign rally in Kigali, Rwanda, Aug. 2, 2017.

KIGALI, RWANDA — Rwanda’s electoral commission says President Paul Kagame has won a third term in a landslide victory.

The commission said partial results of Friday’s election had the president winning 98 percent of the votes. In July, Kagame told a political rally that “the day of the presidential elections will just be a formality.”

“This is another seven years to take care of issues that affect Rwandans and ensure that we become real Rwandans who are (economically) developing,” Kagame said in a speech broadcast live early Friday.

At the national headquarters of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front political party, thousands of political leaders, supporters and donors watched large screen televisions displaying the election results as they came in district by district.

Supporters thrilled

“Tonight we are very, very, extremely happy because he accepted our request [to lead the country],” said Fred Namania, a 30-year-old medical student, at the event. “And, we are looking forward to a lot of things being done in the next seven years.”

Kagame has been in power for 17 years. A 2015 constitutional referendum, approved by 98 percent of voters, could allow Kagame to remain in power until 2034.

“I feel like President Kagame should lead us for [more] decades,” Namania said.

Other Kagame supporters told VOA they aren’t looking for a president for life.

“At the end of the [new] seven-year term of his excellency, Paul Kagame, someone will continue after him,” Kagame supporter Joseph Zorondera said after casting his ballot at the Mbandazi Primary School primary school outside Kigali.

“We need a good leader in our country now to continue to secure the country, to help the people of Rwanda and to continue to develop the country for the next seven years,” he added.

[Photo from Reuters in VOA report is not reported here.]

Polling staff carry a ballot box before counting at a polling center in Kigali, Rwanda, Aug. 4, 2017.

Voting appeared to be smooth

Voting was calm as people trickled into the school in the hilly outskirts of the sprawling capital city, casting ballots in different classrooms.

Valerian Musengamana, the polling station chief, told VOA “the people are very happy with the activities of the election. They are really satisfied.”

The East African Community sent international observers to monitor the polls. The European Union decided not to send a team of observers. Representatives of local observer missions told VOA they hadn’t encountered any significant issues and that the voting appeared to be progressing smoothly.

[Photo from Reuters in VOA report is not reposted here.]

Green Party presidential candidate Frank Habineza addresses the media after casting his vote in Kigali, Rwanda, Aug. 4, 2017.

Opposition presidential candidate Frank Habineza, of the Green Party, told VOA that some of his party’s observers had been denied access to polling stations but, after informing the National Election Commission, 95 percent of them were permitted to monitor the voting process.

Habineza is one of two challengers Kagame faced in his bid for a third term. Independent Philippe Mpayimana is also on the ballot.

Few of their supporters would accept to be interviewed at the polls.

“I chose [the Green] party simply because of its good platform,” said voter Charles Ndamage, with electoral commission officials watching nearby. “The manifesto presented by Habineza was very interesting to me. For instance, the fact that he wants to develop the country by reducing the step between rich people and poor people.”

[Photo from Reuters in VOA report is not reposted here.]

A polling staff member counts ballots at a polling center in Kigali, Rwanda, Aug. 4, 2017.

Kagame endorsements

Nine of the 11 political parties permitted to register in Rwanda have endorsed Kagame. Four other presidential hopefuls were disqualified by the electoral commission. The government and ruling party have brushed off allegations from human rights groups that authorities have restricted freedom of expression and stifled political opposition.

Kagame is widely credited with stabilizing the country after a 1994 genocide.

“They [the opposition candidates] are good but … I don’t think any of them will do better than Paul Kagame. Because we have seen for the last few years that he has been on, the changes. It’s really a big change. It’s obvious,” said voter Imelda Batamoliza.

Kagame’s supporters point to developments like improved roads, more communities connected to clean water, and recently built schools.

All comments (1)

Varney Sando

August 05, 2017 5:19 AM

Your comment…congratulation Mr Kagame for a peaceful election

END OF VOA NEWS REPORT TRANSCRIPT

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