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IPI welcomes launch of VOA satellite broadcasts

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 25 March 2010 - Voice of America (VOA) began satellite broadcasts of its Amharic-language programs to Ethiopia this week after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ordered that VOA's broadcasts be blocked.

The prime minister told reporters on 18 March that VOA was broadcasting "destabilizing propaganda" and that he had ordered the broadcasts to be blocked, Reuters reported.

Zenawi said his government was testing its capacity to jam broadcasts, which could explain why VOA listeners had complained about static sounds in the programming, VOA reported on 18 March.

"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," Reuters quoted Meles as saying. He also compared VOA to Radio Mille Collines, one of the stations involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"The comparison is untrue and offensive," said Letitia King, public affairs director for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. federal agency that oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other U.S. civilian international broadcasters, in a phone conversation with IPI.

Gordon Duguid, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, condemned the comparison in a press release as "a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue." He said that "a decision to jam VOA broadcasts contradicts the Government of Ethiopia's frequent public commitments to freedom of the press."

Prime Minister Zenawi's comments came three weeks after VOA first received reports of interference.

In early March, VOA reported that "international shortwave monitors" were jamming its Amharic-language broadcasts and that it had been receiving complaints since 22 February. At the time, the Ethiopian Communications Office told VOA that the Ethiopian government was not responsible for the jamming.

According to King, Voice of America has experienced "periodic" jamming by the Ethiopian government in the past, most recently in December 2007.

She also pointed out that, unfortunately, the move to satellite broadcasting does not necessarily mean that Ethiopians will now be able to listen to VOA programmes. There has been a "dramatic drop in access," she told IPI.

According to BBG figures, 53 per cent of Ethiopians own shortwave radios, while only 1 per cent have access to satellite television, where they can now listen to VOA on an audio channel. Previously, the broadcaster's own statistics showed that its Amharic-language programmes were reaching one in 10 Ethiopians.

VOA programmes aired in the Afan Oromo and Tigrinya languages were transmitted without incident, King confirmed to IPI.

On 23 May, Ethiopia will hold its first parliamentary elections in five years. After the 2005 elections, dozens of journalists and opposition politicians were imprisoned on charges of subverting the constitution and treason. Publishers and editors were later released under a presidential amnesty. However, 13 political publications shuttered during the 2005 offensive against the media remain closed.

"IPI welcomes VOA's decision to use satellite technology as a means of overcoming Ethiopian government restrictions," said IPI Director David Dadge. "We also condemn the Ethiopian authorities' attempts to block Voice of America broadcasts. IPI also finds it disturbing and irresponsible that Prime Minister Zenawi would equate VOA broadcasts with the extreme rhetoric of radio stations involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"As parliamentary elections approach, Prime Minister Zenawi and the ruling party should permit the free flow of news to citizens. Ethiopians must have access to diverse points of view as they go to the polls," Dadge said.

The International Press Institute believes the Ethiopian government is tightening its hold on the press and broadcasters in the run-up to the May elections. Following a November 2009 mission to the East African country, Dadge said the government has shown a "lingering desire" to control the Ethiopian media, particularly state media.

On 8 March, massive fines were imposed against four private publishing houses whose owners and editors were imprisoned in 2005. Last December, Ethiopia's most prominent independent newspaper, Addis Neger, was forced to shut and its editors fled the country after they received threats that their staff could be charged with crimes relating to terrorism.

Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in East Africa.

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