By Barry Malone (Reuters) – U.S.-funded broadcaster Voice of America is broadcasting its local Amharic language service to Ethiopia via satellite after the country’s Prime Minister ordered it jammed and sparked a diplomatic row.
Ethiopia 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.
“The international broadcasting agency launched this new means of transmission in order to overcome the jamming by the Government of Ethiopia,” the broadcaster said on its website on Tuesday, adding it started using satellite over the weekend.
VOA said it was also exploring other methods of broadcasting to the country. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Friday accused VOA’s radio service in Ethiopia’s dominant language of broadcasting “destabilising propaganda”.
He compared it to Radio Mille Collines, whose broadcasts are blamed by many for sparking the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
His comments drew sharp criticism from the U.S State Department. Analysts say Ethiopia — reliant on foreign aid — is the key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa.
“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 over the weekend.
VOA says its shortwave broadcasts into Ethiopia in Amharic have been jammed for three weeks. It also transmits in the Ethiopian languages, Afan Oromo and Tigrinya, whose services have been unaffected.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and most of its 80 million people have no access to satellite dishes or the Internet. VOA and Germany’s Deutsche Welle are the only foreign broadcasters producing Amharic radio programmes.
VOA was set up during World War Two to counter anti-U.S. propaganda and it broadcasts in 45 languages.
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.