Addis Neger's newsroom in 2009, before the editors fled and the paper folded. (Addis Neger)
Addis Neger's newsroom in 2009, before the editors fled and the paper folded. (Addis Neger)

Ethiopian journalist ID’d in WikiLeaks cable flees country

New York, September 14, 2011–U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed last month by WikiLeaks cited an Ethiopian journalist by name and referred to his unnamed government source, forcing the journalist to flee the country after police interrogated him over the source’s identity, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. It is the first instance CPJ has confirmed in which a citation in one of the cables has caused direct repercussions for a journalist.

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.

“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,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “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.”

The 2009 U.S. embassy cable, written by former information officer Michael Gonzalez, reports Ashine citing an official source from GCAO as saying that authorities “had drawn up a list” of six top Addis Neger journalists “who they plan to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis.” Ethiopian officials have consistently denied any plans to censor Addis Neger, according to news reports.

Addis Neger’s editors ceased publication and fled the country in late November 2009, citing fears of being silenced or prosecuted under a far-reaching antiterrorism law, local journalists said. Columns in the state daily Addis Zemen also labeled Addis Neger‘s coverage as antistate, according to CPJ research.

Ashine is the chairman of the Ethiopian Environment Journalists Association, the deputy chair of Ethiopia’s Foreign Correspondents’ Association, and the local correspondent of Kenya’s Nation Media Group, according to CPJ research. He has written extensively on current issues in Ethiopia, including on regional trade, the local economy, the environment, and laws regulating civil-society organizations. One of his last stories, published last month by the Kenya-based Africa Review, reported on the far-reaching scope of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law.

WikiLeaks defines itself as an “uncensorable” website whose primary interests lie “in exposing oppressive regimes” and being “of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.” Kristinn Hranfsson, a spokeswoman for WikiLeaks, did not immediately return CPJ’s request for comment.

In late 2010, WikiLeaks disclosed a trove of confidential diplomatic cables, portions of which were published along with news analysis by leading news organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian of London. CPJ reviewed the full set of cables at the time and found about a dozen instances in which journalists had apparently been mentioned. In most of these cases, the actual names had been redacted before the cables were published. In two cases where enough information was included to make the journalist identifiable, and another in which a journalist’s name was still included, CPJ contacted WikiLeaks, which redacted the information.

In late August, WikiLeaks disclosed a massive cache of confidential cables, more than 200,000, most of which were unredacted. CPJ is reviewing the most recent cables to determine whether any other journalists are cited.