US, Ethiopia spar over Voice of America broadcasts

US-funded broadcaster Voice of America’s local Amharic language service in Ethiopia will be blocked because it is destabilising the country, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, a move quickly condemned by Washington.

The Horn of Africa country holds national elections in May and international press freedom advocacy groups say the government is cracking down on the media before the vote.

The government denies that.

“We have been convinced for many years, that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in engaging in destabilising propaganda,” Meles said late on Thursday.

Radio Mille Collines was a Rwandan radio station blamed by many for broadcasting racist propaganda that helped spark the 1994 genocide.

The US State Department sharply criticised Meles’ move and urged Ethiopia to respect the freedoms of press and expression guaranteed by its Constitution.

Freedom of the press?
“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,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in a statement.

“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.”

Analysts say Ethiopia is the key US ally in the Horn of Africa.

VOA says its broadcasts into Ethiopia in the dominant Amharic language have been jammed for three weeks. It also transmits in the Ethiopian languages, Afan Oromo and Tigrinya. Those services have been unaffected.

The broadcaster was set up during World War II to counter anti-US propaganda and it broadcasts in 45 languages.

“We have given up on the objectivity of the VOA service and we have been trying to beef up our capacity to deal with it, including through jamming,” Meles said, adding government officials had been working on blocking the service.

“If they assure me at some future date that they have the capacity to jam [VOA], I will give them the clear guideline to jam it,” he told reporters.

VOA said in a statement it had not had talks with the Ethiopian government for more than two years.

“Any comparison of VOA programming to the genocidal broadcasts of Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines is incorrect and unfortunate,” it said.

Analysts expect the Meles government to win the election. The opposition says that is because its members are harassed and jailed. The government says the opposition is trying to discredit the poll because it has no chance of winning. - Reuters

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