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The Ethiopian Government, Not WikiLeaks, Forced a Journalist to Flee

Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi (photo: aheavens)

In the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) report on attacks on the press in Ethiopia in 2010, the advocacy organization for press freedom summarized how the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERDF) had “imprisoned journalists, jammed foreign broadcasters and blocked websites as it swept general elections in May.” The summary recounted an instance where police interrogated two editors of the weekly Sendek for seven hours just as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi gave a speech on “freedom of choice.”

It highlighted how the government intimidated Awramba Times staffers for “challenging coverage.” Desta Tesfaw, who heads the government-controlled media regulatory agency “summoned one of the paper’s top editors, Dawit Kebede,” according to CPJ, and claimed the paper had intentionally incited and misguided the public. Threats to the newspaper led Woubshet Taye to resign from his position as editor-in-chief. And, the summary described the pressure on US government-funded broadcaster Voice of America. (Note: Taye has been held in detention in Ethiopia for months and was recently charged with “terrorism.”)

Fully aware of the climate in which members of the press operate in Ethiopia, CPJ put out a press release on Wednesday, September 14, calling attention to the disconcerting reality that an Ethiopian journalist, whose name appears in a US State Embassy cable recently published by WikiLeaks:

On September 5 and 6, officials from Ethiopia’s Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) summoned journalist Argaw Ashine to their offices in the capital, Addis Ababa, with his press accreditation, Ashine told CPJ on Tuesday. He was summoned because he had been cited in an October 26, 2009, cable from the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia regarding purported GCAO plans in 2009 to silence the now-defunct Addis Neger, then the country’s leading independent newspaper, local journalists said.

On September 8, Ashine was summoned again, this time by police, who interrogated him and gave him 24 hours to either reveal the identity of his source at the GCAO office or face unspecified consequences, the journalist told CPJ. Ashine fled Ethiopia over the weekend. He has requested that his current location not be disclosed for safety reasons.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon concluded:

The threat we sought to avert through redactions of initial WikiLeaks cables has now become real. A citation in one of these cables can easily provide repressive governments with the perfect opportunity to persecute or punish journalists and activists…WikiLeaks must take responsibility for its actions and do whatever it can to reduce the risk to journalists named in its cables. It must put in place systems to ensure that such disclosures do not reoccur.

CPJ reported this was the “first instance” the organization had confirmed where “direct repercussions” had occurred because of being cited in the cables. But, here’s the problem. Nowhere in the cable, which is believed to have endangered Ashine’s life, is there any indication that Arwine was acting as an informant or a source that the Embassy should “protect.” Many of the redactions made in the cables (prior to the release of all unredacted cables) were made by looking for instances in the cable where the word “protect” appeared next to a person’s name. Ashine is just a named journalist in the cable.

WikiLeaks released a statement claiming Ashine was “not named by CPJ in a list of journalistic related redactions processed” by the organization. It went on to note that CPJ had “more words for WikiLeaks, who has no influence on the situation, than it does for the Ethiopian, or its military and intelligence backer.”

Around twenty-four hours after this development was reported, it is worth pointing out that Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a prominent press freedom advocacy organization, has not put up a press release calling attention to WikiLeaks like CPJ did. RSF “temporarily” suspended its WikiLeaks mirror site when WikiLeaks chose to publish more than 100,000 unredacted cables on September 1. The organization was concerned about what could happen to people named in the cables, but it has apparently found no reason to hold WikiLeaks responsible for a journalist having to flee.

Also, at the bottom of the press release, CPJ writes, “In late August, WikiLeaks disclosed a massive cache of confidential cables, more than 200,000, most of which were unredacted.” Actually, all of them are now unredacted. And “unredacted” is a loaded term designed to help those who wish to discredit WikiLeaks succeed in their mission. Uncensored is the right word. They did not release more than 200,000 cables. That is impossible because there are only 101,748 in the cache that was given to WikiLeaks. The other cables are marked secret or unclassified. And, CPJ incorrectly attributes the cable to Gonzalez, who decided how to classify the cable, and did not write it. Charge d’Affaires Robert Meece, whose name appears at the bottom, wrote the cable. If one didn’t know better, they would think CPJ had never read a cable.

Joshua Keating of, who has been covering the WikiLeaks cables for months, reacts, “Given that a central tenet of WikiLeaks’ model is protecting the identity of its sources, it seems pretty tough to defend the exposing of a journalist in an authoritarian country, even if it embarasses the U.S. government in the process.” By that logic, no country suffering from a tyrannical regime should have the names of people, who talked to US diplomats revealed because if they were they could be exposed to danger. It would be acceptable to release the cables with all names of people, especially activists and journalists, redacted. But, what happens when an autocratic government reads the cables and sees the US embassy in the country was talking to “opposition” activists or journalists behind the government’s back? Do governments initiate arbitrary arrest orders against any activist or journalist they think might pose the biggest threat to government all under the pretext that cables show something might be going on? If that happened, would one advocate that cables from countries with despots should just not have been released at all?

It is absurd to blame WikiLeaks for the fact that transparency likely led to Ashine fleeing. The Ethiopian government clearly has a track record of repression of journalists. Media working in the country operate under fear in the country, as the government continues to use an “anti-terrorism law” to target and suppress journalists that are producing stories that fuel opposition. Uncensored information on Ethiopia, in the hands of Ethiopians, has the potential to inspire a movement that topples the government imposing tyranny upon a people. And, it could very well show journalists what Ethiopian leaders were telling US officials behind the scenes and let them know whether they need to find safety somewhere.

Aside from that, CPJ noted the fact that in the cable Ashine is cited as having an “official source from GCAO,” that said a list had been drawn up of “six top Addis Neger journalists they planned “to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis.” This mostly why the government is going after Ashine. Why doesn’t CPJ ask why Meece, who wrote the cable, didn’t take more precautions before sending out the cable? Why didn’t Gonzalez print “protect” next to his name? And, why doesn’t CPJ ask whether the State Department’s “crisis management” team, thought this journalist would be at risk if what he said was disclosed and if, given the horrific climate for the press in Ethiopia, they chose to contact Arwine to let him know he was mentioned in passing in a cable?

It is easy to scapegoat WikiLeaks for this development and continue to add to the laundry list of attempts to disingenuously attack the character and credibility of the organization by focusing in on WikiLeaks. It is much harder to pore over the cables, find the most significant revelations and begin to address the blackmail, coercion, corruption, crimes, deception, fraud and lawlessness exposed.

As Ret. Colonel Ann Wright wrote in a recent op-ed published by Stars & Stripes, “Instead of attacking WikiLeaks, fix what it exposed.” In this context, focus on what the world should be urging the Ethiopian government to do so journalists can operate freely without fear of being targeted and charged with terrorism by the government. Focus on what can be done in Ethiopia so when transparency exposes journalist dealings the government doesn’t like they cannot get away with violently or nonviolently suppressing members of the media.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."