By Alix Pianin
16 September 2010–The World Leaders Forum is no stranger to controversy—its famous invitation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007 set off a firestorm of media and protest—but it was the series’ website that proved inflammatory on Wednesday.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who is scheduled to speak at Low Library on Sept. 22, has allegedly intimidated voters at polls, detained political opponents, and been labeled by the New York Times as an example of “autocratic repression.” So why did Columbia’s World Leaders Forum website refer to such a divisive figure as having demonstrated “seasoned leadership”?
His short biography has since been removed from the website and replaced with a note that he will be speaking on “the current global economy and its impact.”
Launched in 2003 by University President Lee Bollinger, the WLF brings in heads of states and global leaders in an attempt to “advance lively, uninhibited dialogue.”
In the original online biography, Zenawi was quoted as saying that “Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses in many areas, including in education, transportation, health, and energy” while working with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
But some parties called foul.
“It’s unbelievable that such a description about one of the world’s most vicious, corrupt, incompetent tyrants is posted on a prestigious American university’s website,” wrote the Ethiopian Review, a news and opinion site.
The University has since removed the biography as part of a “long-standing editorial policy” to limit the biography pages to “basic factual information” about the speakers, according to a press release.
On Wednesday, Columbia released a full statement that said the background information posted by its own staff was obtained from the Ethiopian government’s Mission and not identified as such.
“It is not the policy of the World Leaders Forum to take editorial positions of the type inadvertently suggested by this unattributed text,” the statement read. “Prime Minister Zenawi’s invitation to speak at Columbia does not constitute endorsement of his views or his nation’s policies.”
University officials would not comment further.