US condemns Ethiopia for VOA jamming

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (pictured in 2009) admitted to jamming the US government-funded VOA broadcasts in Amharic, saying he was prepared to censor the broadcasts because of the service's "destabilizing propaganda." He also compared VOA to Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, which incited the population to exterminate minority Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. (AFP/File/Olivier Morin)

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States condemned Ethiopia’s blocking of Voice of America broadcasts, calling the country’s accusations of the US radio service “baseless and inflammatory.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi earlier admitted to jamming the US government-funded VOA broadcasts in Amharic, saying he was prepared to censor the broadcasts because of the service’s “destabilizing propaganda.”

He said Ethiopian authorities had been testing jamming equipment although there had been no formal decision to block the US radio station.

But Washington said Addis Ababa was already jamming VOA transmissions in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language. The United States “opposes” the move, US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in a statement.

The Ethiopian leader also compared VOA to Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda, which incited the population to exterminate minority Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.

Duguid condemned the comparison to the infamous Rwandan station.

“Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue,” he said on Friday.

“The prime minister may disagree with news carried in Voice of America’s Amharic service broadcasts; however, a decision to jam VOA broadcasts contradicts the government of Ethiopia’s frequent public commitments to freedom of the press.”

He noted that the Ethiopian Constitutions upholds people’s right to freedom of expression “without any interference” and that freedom of the press includes “prohibition of any form of censorship.”

“We look to the government of Ethiopia to abide by its constitution,” Duguid said.

Addis Ababa often accuses VOA of bias toward the opposition and of attempting to foment chaos in the country.

The Horn of Africa nation holds elections on May 23, but human rights groups have accused Meles’s regime of instilling a climate of fear ahead of the polls.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned Ethiopia for “maintaining hostilities.”

“Invoking the Rwandan genocide is an excuse to silence legitimate criticism and scrutiny. The Ethiopian government used this reasoning to crack down on the country’s once-vibrant Amharic press after the disputed 2005 elections,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes.

“As Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stands for re-election in May, we urge him to show leadership on constructive reforms to make press freedom, as guaranteed under Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution, a reality.”