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Ethiopia Accuses Rights Groups, VOA of 'Smear Campaign'

Ethiopia has charged that recent human rights reports and Voice of America broadcasts are aimed at destabilizing the country ahead of the May 23 national elections. Jamming of VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia has been expanded in recent days.

Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal describes the latest reports on Ethiopia by Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department as part of a pre-election smear campaign.

"These reports are made under the guise of human rights concerns but primarily focused on defaming and unduly blemishing the good image of the country," said Shimelis Kemal.

The report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch accuses Ethiopia of creating a climate of fear ahead of the May elections with a 'coordinated and sustained attack' on political opponents and journalists. The State Department's annual report documents a number of violations, among them that Ethiopia is holding scores of political prisoners, including opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

Both reports were issued in the past few weeks.

Speaking to reporters, Shimelis called the reports a 'litany of condemnation' filled with false allegations designed to destabilize Ethiopia.

"It is a smear campaign intended to portray the forthcoming elections as unfair and the conditions surrounding the election as undemocratic," said Shimelis. "One can discern that the prime focus of this reporting is to create a kind of weak government in Ethiopia that would easily bend to pressures from foreign elements, foreign forces.

Shimelis also defended Ethiopia's decision to jam VOA language service broadcasts, alleging that the Amharic Service has a history of sowing seeds of hatred.

"VOA in the past has repeatedly broadcast programs and statements that tend to incite, foment hatred between different ethnic groups," he said. "Recently, it has transmitted a program alleging the government of Ethiopia had staged state sponsored genocide in Gambela."

Shimelis noted that several VOA Amharic Service staffers working in Washington had been charged in absentia with 'openly promoting violence' in the wake of the 2005 election. VOA rejected the accusations, and the charges were later dropped.

VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia were blocked around the 2005 election, and again before the 2008 local elections. Jamming of Amharic Service programs began again February 22. The jamming has been extended in the past few days to other Ethiopian language broadcasts, in Tigrinya and Afan Oromo.

Despite the jamming and the denunciation of human rights reporting, spokesman Shimelis described the overall Ethiopia/U.S. relationship as strong, and based on mutual interests. The United States views Ethiopia as a key ally in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

VOA Director Danforth W. Austin issued a statement Thursday calling the jamming "unfortunate," and strongly denying that the broadcasts are aimed at destabilizing or defaming the government of Ethiopia. The statement said VOA supports free, uncensored press, and recognizes the opportunity to serve the people of Ethiopia with unbiased news and information.

The Voice of America is a multi-media international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government. VOA broadcasts more than 1,500 hours of news and other programming every week in 45 languages to an audience of more than 125 million people.