Journalist On the Run – Wikileaks Clarifies Its Role

September 27th, 2011 | by addis portal |

Bram Posthumus

23 September 2011


Earlier this week, Radio Netherlands ran a story about Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine, who had to flee his country after a confidential American diplomatic cable revealed his contacts with the US Embassy in Addis Abeba.

He squarely blames the whistleblowing website Wikileaks for his predicament. I called Wikileak’s spokesman for an explanation. Kristinn Hrafnsson reiterated a previous statement: it was the action by the UK-based newspaper The Guardian to release the decryption key, which opened up wide access to the cables and subsequent cans of worms.

He explained: ‘When former insiders at Wikileaks pointed out how to connect the dots, we were faced with the difficult question: are we going to wait and give the secret services the advantage of having sole access to this material or do we make sure that everyone has access to this information?’ Wikileaks decided on the latter. In security-obsessed Ethiopia, tracing the US diplomatic cable to Mr Ashine was only a matter of time. But once again: ‘It was not our call. It was our media partner, in this case The Guardian that decided to publish.’

Still, as we reported earlier, Mr Ashine and indeed the New York-based Committee to protect Journalists hold Wikileaks ” ultimately responsible”. An audibly exasperated Mr Hrafnsson responded: ‘We have shown so many instances of wrongdoings against journalists in material that we have published without this kind of strong response from the Committee to protect Journalists.’ He added that journalists have suffered fates worse than exile as a result of Wikileaks publications without such a strong reaction.

Meanwhile, Wikileaks has reconsidered its procedures in working with traditional media, as a result of this case. But, according to Wikileaks, there is someone else who could have acted to protect Mr Ashine: the US state department. The State Department was in receipt of information about threats to journalists in Ethiopia, a key US ally in the Horn of Africa. ‘We repeatedly asked for their cooperation, which they denied,’ said Mr Hrafnsson. ‘If they are genuinely concerned about the people they call “their informants”, they should cooperate with us.’

Mr Ashine may be considering legal action against Wikileaks but the spokesman would not be drawn on speculating about a response. He considers it more important to focus on the wider issue of press freedom. ‘It is important for governments that are supporting oppressive governments to link demands for press freedom with aid to those countries.’

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