Authorities urged to unblock websites

Global media watchdogs have called on Ethiopian authorities to unblock websites that have been inaccessible since 19 May and voiced concern over censorship in the Horn of Africa country.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement on Wednesday that it had received reports that Ethiopian authorities were blocking several ‘blogs’, or Internet journals, containing content that was critical of the government.

Information Minister Berhanu Hailu, however, told CPJ no websites had been blocked within Ethiopia.

In an open letter to the minister on Tuesday, the French organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned that blocking free expression would only increase political tension in the country. "We would like to know if your government has deliberately blocked access to online publications ... thus taking the course of filtering the Internet," it said. "It is likely that the disappearance of the sites is the result of political censorship and not technical problems."

Officials at the Ministry of Information said they had no explanation or information about the sudden inaccessibility of the blogs, including webreader, Cyberethiopia.com, ethiopianreview.com, tensae.net, quatero.net and ethioforum.org.

The international community has criticised Ethiopia recently for its repression of post-election demonstrations in June and November 2005, in which at least 84 people were killed, many at the hands of the police. The government responded to the demonstrations by launching a crackdown on the media and opposition figures.

Currently, 111 defendants, including journalists, are on trial for conspiracy, treason and trying to overthrow the government. At least eight private publications have been officially banned, while others have been prevented from publishing by government-controlled printers.

CPJ said the crackdown on the media and the resulting widespread self-censorship had spurred many Ethiopian journalists and activists to turn to the Internet. "We are deeply troubled by reports that Ethiopian authorities may be censoring the Internet, one of the few remaining avenues for free expression in the country," said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. "The people of Ethiopia have a right to access news and information on the Internet, including critical web sites."