In Ethiopia case, a response to WikiLeaks

Last week, we learned that Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine was facing possible arrest and needed to flee the country. During a 10-day period in September, he had been summoned three times by Ethiopian authorities and questioned about a reference to him in a cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in October 2009 and made public by WikiLeaks last month.

The reference to Ashine was a passing one, mentioning only that the journalist had spoken with a source in the Ethiopian government who had told him of plans to arrest the editors of the critical Ethiopian weekly Addis Neger. Fearing arrest and prosecution, those editors fled the country and shut the newspaper in November 2009.

On September 8, police interrogators told Ashine that he had 24 hours to cough up his source in the Ethiopian government or face the consequences. This was no idle threat. At least six journalists were recently detained under the country’s draconian anti-terror law. They face up to 20 years in prison.

After Ashine was safely out of Ethiopia he contacted us and asked us to make his ordeal public. His primary goal was to highlight the Ethiopian government’s shameful actions, but he also wanted to draw attention to the fact that the inclusion of his name in an unredacted WikiLeaks cable had done him great harm. In our news alert, I noted, “A citation in one of these cables can easily provide repressive governments with the perfect opportunity to persecute or punish journalists and activists.”

Prior to issuing our news alert, we spoke with a WikiLeaks representative who promised to provide a response but did not do so before our deadline. Later, a response linked to WikiLeaks’ official Twitter account, said the following:

The Ethiopian journalist, Argaw Ashine, mentioned by the CPJ in its press release today, is not detailed by WikiLeaks cables as a US embassy informant. No journalistic source is named or identified in the cable. Rather, Mr. Ashine is mentioned, in passing, in relation to events in 2005 and 2006. Neither was Mr. Ashine named by the CPJ in a list of journalistic related redactions processed by us. While, it is outrageous for a journalist to feel the need to leave their country for a period, neither is it good for the CPJ to distort the facts for marketing purposes. Extraordinarily, the CPJ reserves more words for WikiLeaks, who has no influence on the situation, than it does for the Ethiopian government, or its military and intelligence backer, Washington.

CPJ has no bone to pick with WikiLeaks. To the contrary, we have defended the organization, sending a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in December 2010 arguing that WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange should not be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act. Our sole interest in speaking out is to safeguard the safety of journalists and protect their ability to work in repressive environments.

Last year, when approximately 2,000 cables were released in conjunction the WikiLeaks collaboration with The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde, we went through the cables looking for names of vulnerable journalists and asking for redactions. WikiLeaks promptly complied. This time around, however, more than 200,000 cables have been released at once and we’ve been struggling to get through them. We only learned that the Ashine was named in the cable after he was questioned by Ethiopian authorities. In other words, the damage had already been done.

The fact that Ashine was not cited as a U.S. “informant” is irrelevant from the point of view of his interrogators. They had learned from the cable that Ashine had a well-connected source in the Ethiopian government and they wanted to know who it was. (We have to assume that the reference in the WikiLeaks response to events in 2005 and 2006 is an error. In fact, the cable references events in 2008 and 2009.)

We hold the Ethiopian government responsible for its abhorrent behavior, including its brutal, ongoing media crackdown. We’ve made this clear in our statements and news alerts. We’ve supported numerous Ethiopian journalists who’ve been forced to flee into exile.

However, we believe that WikiLeaks has ultimate responsibility for any negative impact that accrues from the information entrusted to it, regardless of the circumstances under which the latest round of cables was made public. We are asking that WikiLeaks assume that responsibility. WikiLeaks can’t control what others publish, but it can control what’s on its own website, and it can make a concerted effort to ensure that the names of vulnerable individuals, including journalists, are redacted.

WikiLeaks also has a responsibility to put in place procedures to ensure that such individuals are protected in the event of any future releases. In the meantime, we will continue to alert WikiLeaks as we become aware of vulnerable journalists cited in the cables and will ask they these names be redacted.