Argaw Ashine was named in the confidential communication as having in 2009, warned journalists of the popular independent Addis Neger publication, over an impending crackdown following a tip he had received from a government source.
The paper closed shop in November that year and members of its editorial team went into exile, citing fears of being prosecuted under a new far-reaching anti-terrorism law criticised for restricting media freedom.
Contained in the latest release of uncensored documents by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, Ethiopia’s state minister for Government Communications, Shimeis Kamal is alleged to have told a British embassy press specialist that “Addis Neger should be eliminated”.
“Later that day, a contact within GCAO (government communications office) told the Addis Ababa-based Daily Nation reporter Argaw Ashene (sic) that the GCAO had drawn up a list of the six top Addis Neger officials, including [editor in chief] Tamerat Negera, who they plan to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis,” read the cable written by former US information officer Michael Gonzalez.
Following the disclosure, the Ethiopian Government’s communication office on September 5 and 6 summoned Mr Argaw to their offices, where his press accreditation was revoked.
On September 8, he was again summoned, but this time by Ethiopian police in the capital Addis Ababa, who gave him 24 hours to name his source or face unspecified consequences.
Mr Ashine refused to comply and fled Ethiopia over the weekend.
He said the government was planning to use a recent story on the new law that he wrote for Nation online portal, the Africa Review, to press charges, but this was only a cover, according to him.
“Their real issue is WikiLeaks and how their plot to arrest six journalists was exposed to the United States,” he told the Daily Nation from his new base, which he, for his personal safety, requested be kept undisclosed.
The Ethiopian Government has denied the accusation.
“In the first place, no official has asked him to disclose his source and in the second place no official can ask him to disclose a source under Ethiopian law,” AFP news agency Thursday quoted spokesman Bereket Simon as saying.
“We have no problem in accepting him back, he has the right to live in Ethiopia,” added the spokesman.
Media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it believed this was the first instance it has confirmed in which a citation in one of the cables has caused direct repercussions for a journalist and in a statement called for WikiLeaks to take responsibility.
“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.
The new law expressly bans any form of communication with groups designated as terrorist organisations, including reporting even a press release or interviewing their members.
Any publisher of such information would have been deemed to have disseminated terror-related information and faced a jail term of up to 2o years.
Among the groups on the terror list are opposition groups the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7. Others are al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda.