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VOA responds to Meles Zenawi

March 19, 2010

By Jason McLure | Bloomberg

Voice of America said Ethiopian Prime Minister dictator Meles Zenawi’s comparison of its local-language news service with the Rwandan broadcaster accused of fomenting that country’s genocide in 1994 was “incorrect and unfortunate.”

Meles said yesterday the U.S. government-owned station’s Amharic-language broadcasts “copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.” He accused VOA, which is overseen by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, of “wanton disregard for minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”

Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines gained notoriety during 1994 for transmitting broadcasts inciting hardline Rwandan ethnic Hutus to carry out a genocide that left 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

“Any comparison of VOA programming to the genocidal broadcasts of Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines is incorrect and unfortunate,” Danforth Austin, director of Washington-based VOA, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

On March 4, VOA reported that its Amharic-service broadcasts to Ethiopia were being jammed. Shimeles Kemal, a government spokesman, called the accusation “an outright lie” and said Ethiopia’s constitution forbids jamming of news broadcasts. Meles said yesterday that the government had been
trying to “beef up” its capacity to interfere with VOA’s signal.

Jamming Capacity

“If they assure me at some future date that they have the capacity to jam it then I will give them the clear guideline to jam it,” Meles said, adding that recent broadcasts may have been unintelligible because “they may have been testing the equipment that they have for jamming.”

VOA, along with Germany’s Deutsche Welle, are the only two foreign broadcasters that provide a news service in Ethiopia’s main language. The Ethiopian government owns the country’s only television broadcaster and domestic radio waves are dominated by government and ruling-party stations.

“VOA deplores jamming as a form of media censorship wherever it may occur,” Austin said in the statement.

Ethiopia has been a key ally of the U.S. in recent years. U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in December 2006, occupying Mogadishu for two years and assisting the U.S. in pursuit of suspected al-Qaeda members. The U.S. trains Ethiopia’s military and American aid to the country topped $850
million last year.

Political tensions in Ethiopia have been rising ahead of elections scheduled for May 23.


On March 2, an opposition candidate for parliament from Meles’s home region of Tigray was stabbed to death. Two other opposition candidates were beaten that week, and opposition leaders have accused the government of responsibility. The government has said the violence was not politically motivated.

In February a newspaper columnist was jailed for criticizing Meles and at least a dozen Ethiopian reporters fled the country in 2009 citing government harassment, according to a statement from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ethiopia has “several hundred” political prisoners, according to a U.S. State Department report released earlier this month. They include opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, who has been jailed under a life sentence since 2008 and whose “mental health had deteriorated significantly,” the State Department said.

Meles has called the State Department allegations “lies” and said the U.S. was opening itself to criticism by reporting false allegations of human rights abuses.

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