Prime minister says Ethiopia plans to jam VOA broadcasts

New York, March 19, 2010Ethiopia is preparing to jam the Amharic-language broadcasts of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America (VOA), Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared Thursday in a press briefing with international media correspondents based in the capital, Addis Ababa. 

The prime minister accused VOA’s Amharic service of “engaging in destabilizing propaganda,” comparing it to Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, the Rwandan station whose inflammatory broadcasts helped stoke the 1994 genocide. In a statement, VOA rejected the comparison as “incorrect and unfortunate.”

The issue arose Thursday when a reporter asked Zenawi about interference that VOA listeners had experienced since late February. Zenawi said the government has been testing equipment that would allow it to block VOA broadcasts, according to news reports. He said a final decision on the jamming had not been made.

“We have to know before we make the decision to jam whether we have the capacity to do it,” Zenawi told reporters, according to news accounts. But he left little doubt he would authorize jamming once the government had the capability, saying “I can assure you” the plan will go forward once it is feasible.

Zenawi’s statements were the first acknowledgment of government interference with VOA broadcasts, which are beamed by satellite from Washington and received in Ethiopia via short-wave radio. Just two weeks earlier, Shemelis Kemal, a government spokesman, told CPJ that any suggestion of government involvement in the interference was an “absolute sham.” He said such practices were unconstitutional.

“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.”

The Ethiopian government has taken draconian measures to limit independent coverage of the May elections, revising a media law to stiffen penalties for libel and adopting anti-terrorism legislation that requires journalists to disclose sources, according to CPJ research. This month, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia issued a code of conduct for the media restricting the activities of journalists covering the polls, according to news reports. Meanwhile, the government has continued to jail and persecute its critics in the press.