WikiLeaks' censorship on Seye and Berhanu controversial

By Eskinder Nega / December 12, 2010
The excision of entire passages from a leaked US embassy cable on Seye Abraha, a former Defense Minister turned opposition politician, and Berhanu Nega, a former mayor-elect turned leader of a clandestine opposition based in the US, has stirred bewilderment and disappointment here in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The two were conspicuously referred to in a June 2009 cable to Washington by Donald Yamamoto, then US Ambassador to Ethiopia, after a rare meeting with Ethiopia’s “elusive hardliner” spy chief, Getachew Assefa.

WikiLeaks posted the first two of more than 1300 leaked State Department cables on Ethiopia this week, triggering a new wave of blockades by ETC against proxies that circumvent filters against Ethiopian websites. (Despite their best effort, nonetheless, their “line of defense” is hardly impregnable.)

The revelation of the first Ethiopian cable, dated January 31, 2010, came as part of a notable international story about the Copenhagen accord on climate change. Mandated by the African Union to represent the continent, Meles is a prominent participant in this still on-going saga of international back-door dealings, public-grand standings and plain old-fashioned diplomatic intrigue. “ Meles (told Under Secretary of State Mario Otero) that the GOE (government of Ethiopia) supports the accord in Copenhagen,” cabled the US embassy to Washington, with obvious glee. But important as this may have been to the international community, it elicited no more than a long yawn from the Ethiopian public. In one of the world’s most impoverished nations, climate change could hardly be part of mainstream discourse.

But if only half-heartedly, the Under Secretary, who travelled to Addis primarily to lobby in support of the Copenhagen accords, did raise other issues of keen local interest, and in the process, inadvertently highlighted not only the increasing assertiveness of Meles in his dealings with the world’s lone super power, but also the clear reluctance of the Obama administration to apply pressure on authoritarian regimes. “Birtukan will vegetate in prison forever,” Meles tells the Americans belligerently. And all Otero could muster in response was a pitiful “(urge to) exercise wise judgment and leadership, and CONSIDER the release of Birtukan Mideksa.” Emboldened, Meles then even goes to risk the mother of all revisionist histories. “Referencing his own struggle against the Derge regime," details the cable,” Meles said he and his compatriots received no foreign funding, but were willing to sacrifice and die for their cause.” The Americans, in line with their famed short attention spans, were in no position to debate about events two decades in the past. And suddenly, Meles assumes the moral high-ground. There was no stopping him after this.

All in all, Meles comes out the clear winner in this cable: strong, confident, and, most importantly, his private utterances fall in perfect sync with his public pronouncements. The Americans, on the other hand, fall far short of the traditional image of a superpower, sadly, not even that of a receding one. They allow Meles to bully, provoke and lecture them, all in almost meek silence. To all appearances, they stand powerless before him. (Interestingly, not a word about freedom of the press, the principal advocates of democracy until their suppression in 2005, but an argument of sorts over civil society, whose record on democratization in Ethiopia is at best minimal.)

The second cable, dated June 2009, is classified as Secret, a notch higher than the mere confidential status for the first one, and came under a distinctly interesting title: Understanding the Ethiopian hardliners. Written, classified and filed by Ambassador Donald Yamamoto himself, this is a very personal take of a senior diplomat on a vital national security issue.

But only two lines into the cable, in a seeming vindication to Professor Easterly’s oft repeated adage, “foreigners never have enough at stake to get it right,” Yamamoto commits a startling error. “In a rare meeting with the elusive head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS),” wrote Yamamoto, “and main hardliner within the powerful executive committee of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, Ambassador and NISS chief Getachew Assefa discussed a wide range of regional and bilateral issues.” But Getachew has never been a member of the Executive Committees of neither the EPRDF coalition nor one of its four constituent members, the TPLF. He has neither moved up or down from his position on the central committee of both parties for over two decades.

A few lines later, Yamamoto relates about Getachew’s concerns about the OLF and ONLF. He also“spoke at length about former Addis Ababa mayor-elect Berhanu Nega.” And suddenly, inexplicably, the first excision, suggested by the State Department, and obviously accepted by WikiLeaks and the papers, appear. Presumably, only a few lines are omitted, but one could not help but wonder how “a State Department source,” the rational for the censorship, could be involved here. (Or is the State Department, as many wonder, protecting Getachew’s sources, too?) Mercifully, the next two lines are spared the censor’s sharp scissors, and that “VOA’s biased reporting; the dangers of former Defense Minister Seeye Abraha’s growing authority within the opposition” are on the “reclusive” spy chief’s mind is revealed. All these, and much more, come as introductory summaries; in three unusually lengthy sentences. And only then do the details ensue.

Interestingly, this rare meeting comes courtesy of former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Irving Hicks, an African American, who is a close confident of Ethio-Saudi billionaire, Mohammed Al Amoudi. In fairness to Getachew, though he obviously disdains the prospect of a regular meet with foreigners, he tries to compensate by giving Yamamoto a 4-hour marathon audience.(Which was not enough to break the ice between them, however. “Getachew will never be a close contact,” Yamamoto informs Washington at the end of his report. And with US’ embassy in Asmara cable to Washington about the need for close contact with Eritrean Generals to encourage a coup against Isaias Afewerki posted by WikiLeaks, this will no doubt comfort Meles.)

Getachew speaks more like a politician, which he is, than a professional spy master. “(The US) should brand the OLF and the ONLF as terrorists, and should never meet with them,” he argues. “The Ethiopian government would not meet with extremists in the US who bomb abortion clinics,” he assures Yamamoto, a bit comically. “ The Ambassador responded that there should be closer discussion between Ethiopia and the US on this issue,” reports Yamamoto. (Don’t hold your breath, Getachew.) All juicy, and nothing was omitted. So far, so good.

But then come the details about Getachew’s misgivings about the VOA, and everything after the first sentence is deleted. Where is room for ambiguity here, ask many in the public. No State Department source could even be remotely involved. Why then would WikiLeaks and the papers agree to the excisions suggested by the State Department?

But worse is in store. A paragraph later, a paragraph in its entirety, numbered 6, is missing. Number 7 is also partially cut. Number 8, as was the case for 6, is deleted entirely. Fortunately, the erasing stops here. The five subsequent paragraphs are there in their entirety. But the take (most probably, no more than a political analysis) of the security chief on Seye Abraha and Berhanu Nega are no where to be found. They are inexplicably removed “from the public domain.”

Would Manning and Assange, both now languishing in prison, approve of censorship, when the safety of sources are clearly not endangered? WikiLeaks and the papers have a lot of explaining to do.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: