11 May 2011

Government hijacks World Press Freedom Day event

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Officials in Ethiopia celebrated World Press Freedom Day by hijacking a local UNESCO-sponsored 3 May event, putting up pro-government journalists as speakers and cancelling independent journalists who were scheduled to speak, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Participants thought they were coming to hear the veteran editor of the bilingual weekly "Reporter", Amare Aregawi, speak on UNESCO's 2011 World Press Freedom Day theme, "21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers".

Instead, officials orchestrated an altered agenda prepared by the government's communications department, which replaced Aregawi and other independent journalists with officials and pro-government media representatives. Biruk Kebede, from the ruling EPRDF-sponsored Fana Broadcasting Corporation, became the event's moderator.

Independent journalists walked out in response.

"The irony of censoring World Press Freedom Day will not be lost on the leadership of the United Nations, which has spent the past three days emphasising the need for freedom of expression," said CPJ. "By hijacking this event, Ethiopia has again put its appalling record of media repression on display for the whole world."

Local journalists told CPJ that before the event, officials contacted the organisers and threatened to break up the meeting with force if the agenda wasn't accepted. The authorities also told organisers to change out the moderators, drop presentations critical of the authorities, and give more time to government officials. The organisers refused.

State Minister Shimelis Kemal, Desta Tesfaw from the government-controlled Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, and leaders of government-controlled press unions like Anteneh Abraham of the Ethiopian National Journalists Union and Wondwossen Mekonnen of Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (not to be confused with IFEX member Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association) came to the event and took it over.

The incident coincided with CPJ's release of "The 10 Tools of Online Oppressors" that highlighted the Ethiopian government's censorship of the Internet through its stranglehold on the country's telecommunications infrastructure. Officials are allegedly fearful of an Egypt-style, Internet-fuelled popular uprising, particularly with cyber-activists calling for mass protests in May.

Coincidentally, on 3 May, websites discussing political dissent and human rights - which are typically accessible only through proxy servers in Ethiopia - were suddenly unblocked, says CPJ.

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