An Ethiopian reporter has fled the East African nation after being named in a WikiLeaks cable, a journalists' rights group said, in what they said was the first instance of a leaked cable causing direct repercussions for a journalist.
Ethiopian officials on Thursday denied reporter Argaw Ashine's account to the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was harassed and intimidated. Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal also said officials had separately arrested five opposition figures on Wednesday, including a journalist, on allegations of terrorism.
An official from the country's main opposition coalition said the recent events illustrate a pattern of oppression as citizens tire of the longtime leadership and seek change. Wednesday's arrests follow dozens of other terrorism related arrests and detentions in recent weeks, including those of two Swedish journalists.
Human rights groups have long accused Ethiopia of cracking down on political dissent.
The New York-based journalists group said late Wednesday that Argaw fled over the weekend after being interrogated over the identity of a government source mentioned in a leaked U.S. cable. Argaw was the local correspondent for Kenya's Nation Media Group.
"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," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement. "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 leaked 2009 cable said Argaw was told by an unnamed source that the government would target six journalists from a newspaper seen as critical of the government. That paper closed later that year after citing harassment and intimidation.
Shimeles, the government spokesman, said Argaw was not pressured to name a source and that Ethiopian law allows journalists to protect their sources.
"This is a very absurd and ridiculous accusation, the allegation that he was threatened by security to leave the country or disclose a source," he said.
Argaw had asked the rights group to not reveal his location.
Eskinder Nega, a journalist and publisher whose newspaper was shut down over allegations that the paper incited violence during disputed elections in 2005, was among the five opposition figures arrested Wednesday, Shimeles said. After the newspaper was shut down, Eskinder continued to speak critically of the government in public forums, and articles under his byline appeared on opposition-aligned websites.
"According to the police statement, these people have been involved in activities, they have plotted, planned and carefully laid out contrived plans that are likely to wreak havoc in the country through launching terrorist attacks and throwing the country into utter chaos," Shimeles said.
Opposition party official Negasso Gidada said another person arrested, Andualem Arage, served on the editorial board of an opposition-party newspaper. He denied the charges that the five were involved in terrorist activities.
Negasso said the party newspaper had been advocating for "the right to struggle in a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and legal way.
"The people are fed up because of the social, economic and political situation and the people follow also what is happening in North Africa and Arab countries ... and people are saying, 'When is our turn? When shall we go to the streets?'" he said. "The attitude is so strong in the country, in the people, soon it will explode, and the government is afraid of that, and by arresting political party members and leaders, the government thinks it will take precautionary measures against that."
Amnesty International researcher Claire Beston said the London-based rights group had counted that 100 Ethiopian opposition members and five journalists have been arrested since March, all on terror charges.
Two of them, both politicians, were arrested in August after Beston and a colleague interviewed them about politically motivated arrests during a visit to Ethiopia. They were arrested the same day Beston and her colleague were suddenly told by the government to leave the country.
"I would say today to the Ethiopian government, 'When is this going to end?' Are they going to arrest every opposition politician and every independent journalist?" she said. "All the indications are that there is just a complete clampdown on all freedom of expression."