The VOA double standard: a comparative analysis of Belarus and Djibouti

A case study of the hypocrisy inherent to one of the world’s largest propaganda networks.

U.S.-Djiboutian diplomatic meeting in Washington, D.C., 18 May 2017 (Photo by Mohamed A. Robleh)

As a contributor for Africa Elects, I had the pleasure of covering Djibouti’s recent presidential election. As expected, they occurred with but a whimper: reigning president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, known colloquially as “IOG”, secured almost 100% of the vote in the absence of the traditional opposition.

Djibouti is one of the poorest and least-developed nations on Earth. According to the World Food Programme, 79% of the one million-strong population live in poverty, and it has an unemployment rate of “nearly 60%”.

IOG has ruled the small state, strategically located on the Horn of Africa, since 1999, when he succeeded his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon to become the country’s second president since independence from France in 1977.

On 30 March, just ten days before the election, the U.S. State Department issued a damning report on the state of political and human rights in Djibouti. The report characterized the country as one without true freedom of assembly, expression, or fair trial, among other widespread abuses:

“State security forces reportedly beat, harassed, and excluded some opposition leaders. The government also restricted the operations of opposition parties” (Section 3).

Out of 167 surveyed countries, Djibouti occupied the 144th position on the 2020 Democracy Index. It scored 24/100, or “not free”, in Freedom House’s 2021 report:

“While Djibouti technically has a multiparty political system, the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) uses authoritarian means to maintain its dominant position. The opposition’s ability to operate is severely constrained, and journalists and activists who air criticism of Guelleh or the UMP are regularly harassed or arrested.”

The picture of dictatorship in Djibouti is crystal clear. How, then, did Voice of America go about reporting on its election?

In an article published on 10 April, VOA News explained the event in a very matter-of-fact, uncritical way: ‘IOG won, IOG thanked his supporters, and Djibouti is geopolitically important’ — to paraphrase.

The results are stated, IOG is briefly quoted as thanking his voters, and there is some mention of Djibouti’s strategic importance.

There was no mention of the severe lack of democracy and rights protections in the country. No mention of the election boycott by the country’s main opposition groups. No mention of the concerns of the only opposition candidate, Zakaria Ismail Farah, who accused government officials of prohibiting his surrogates from watching the votes being counted, as well as of stuffing ballot boxes in support of IOG.

There is literally zero mention of these important facts.

If you had no idea as to Djibouti’s political history, you might believe it to be a stable democracy given the manner in which VOA depicts the election — except maybe for the obvious fact that the president won a ridiculous 97.44% of the vote. Then again, Iceland’s ceremonial president won an actually-democratic election last year with over 92% of the vote, so it’s not immensely far-fetched.

And, if one was curious, the only mention by VOA of the election prior to this was in an article titled Al-Shabab Issues Threats Ahead of Elections in Djibouti, published on 28 March:

“Djibouti voters go to the polls on April 9 for presidential elections. Incumbent Ismail Omar Guelleh is seeking a fifth term in office.”

Just as unadorned and casual as the tone and content of the election recap.

This form of plain, non-contextual election coverage was unique to VOA, too. Both the Associated Press and Reuters, for example, included the concerns of and boycott by the opposition, as well as the issue of rampant authoritarianism.

One of the VOA article’s authors, Harun Maruf, neglected to embellish his election coverage on social media as well. Across two tweets, Maruf noted that IOG had won with “more than 98% of the vote”, and that regional results showed he had “won big”. He said this on election day:

“Voting is underway in Djibouti’s Presidential election as 73-year-old incumbent Ismail Omar Guelleh seeks a fifth, 5-year term in office. The other candidate in the race is little known businessman Zakaria Ismail Farah. Djibouti is a strategic shipping and military hub in Aftica [sic].” (@HarunMaruf on Twitter)

As of 12 April, his most recent tweet on Djibouti is a retweet of IOG’s brother congratulating the president on his reelection.

According to the “Journalistic Code” of VOA, its “reporting represents the best effort to seek out and present a comprehensive account of the event or trend being covered.”

On the same webpage, VOA states that its reporting extolls the “the struggle for freedom around the globe today”.

Carrying water for corrupt dictators by reporting uncritically on their sham elections is considered comprehensive, freedom-loving journalism at VOA, apparently.

The disconnect between VOA’s stated values and priorities and their actual reporting is not my focus, though. One could write books on that topic.

When I read VOA’s superficial coverage on Djibouti, I became curious as to what, in comparison, their reporting of Belarus’ controversial presidential election was.

Belarus held an election in August of last year that saw the country’s longtime, dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko remain in power. While the state’s official results showed he had won with over 80% of the vote, the main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya quickly alleged fraud. Major protests, which are still ongoing, were repressed with violent force.

Her accusations were supported by the U.S. and the European Union, who both still refuse to acknowledge the result of the election.

So how did VOA report on this pivotal event? Far more critically — critical of Lukashenko, more so— than they did on Djibouti.

The article included a single quote from Lukashenko, in which he vowed a harsh crackdown on foreign-manipulated “sheep” opposition protestors.

VOA’s quote from IOG, on the other hand, was a snippet from a Facebook post in which he thanked Djiboutians for reelecting him.

The rest of the Belarus article follows predictably. It covers the opposition’s objections to the election result, state repression of public demonstrations against Lukashenko, and rounds off with quotes from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and NATO officials criticizing the Belarusian government’s behaviour.

Its coverage on Djibouti contained no such contextual embellishment. Where was the discussion of the 2020 protests that were also violently repressed? The oppositional boycott? The victimization of the only opposition candidate?

One can even point criticism at the differences in titles between the two pieces. While VOA’s Djibouti issue simply states that IOG was “re-elected”, their piece on Belarus makes it clear that Lukashenko won a “6th straight term”. The fact that this will be IOG’s fifth term, and that he has been in power since 1999, was not mentioned until the second-to-last paragraph.

Belarus and Djibouti are not so far apart in the aforecited metrics on democracy and human rights, either. Belarus ranked 148th in the world in the 2020 Democracy Index, just four places below Djibouti. With a 2021 Freedom House score of 11/20, it sits in the same category as Djibouti: “not free”.

The only clear difference I can see is that Djibouti is far more geopolitically important to the U.S. than Belarus is. While Belarus is a “pariah to the West”, Djibouti houses the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa:

“Camp Lemonnier […] acts as the launchpad for fighter planes, helicopters and US Special Forces alike. Smaller military bases from France, Germany and others similarly populate the peninsula. Helpfully, Djibouti places zero restrictions on the type or target of military actions launched from bases within its borders, allowing for a host of controversial operations.” (Africa Times)

While IOG may be a repressive dictator, he has largely secured peace in his country, while neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia remain mired in conflict. This is important for major powers, who take advantage of Djibouti’s critical position at the entrance to the Red Sea.

IOG with US president George W. Bush, 21 January 2003 (Photo by Paul Morse)

The U.S. has no such need for Belarus. The small Eastern European country headed by “Europe’s last dictator” is politically, economically, and geographically isolated.

IOG is a useful dictator for the West. Lukashenko is not. IOG has maximized his country’s geopolitical utility, and thus remains inseparable from his Western-friendly regime. As such, VOA, whose charter requires it to “represent America”, would be unwise to be critical of his reelection.

The double standard of VOA is, nonetheless, utterly astounding.

You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. — Thomas Sankara

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