He says he’s shocked and saddened, but mainly amazed by the sudden turn of events: Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine has been on an emotional rollercoaster since his rapid flight from his homeland. Two weeks ago he was forced to go underground and then flee the country after being questioned by the Ethiopian authorities.
By Hélène Michaud and Willemien Groot
A few days after Mr Ashine’s name appeared in one of the US diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks, he was being questioned by police in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. He was given a choice: either reveal his source within 24 hours or suffer the consequences.
Ethiopia does officially recognise the right to keep one’s sources confidential but Mr Ashine says the police chief made it very clear that he regarded the law as irrelevant. He says he decided not to wait for the next meeting with the police and left the country. The consequences of a refusal were made quite clear and Ethiopian journalists have been imprisoned for far less.
“Actually there was no physical threat. But I am aware of the situation, because I am not the only one. Immediately before my departure, six other journalists were arrested and I know the trend and the problem in the Ethiopian media. And it is clear for me what will happen later. Even after the police investigator tried to tell me the issue is to know the source only. Not to harm me. He tried to convince me but I said I’m not willing to disclose my source.”
Mr Ashine was named in a 2009 US diplomatic cable, classified as confidential, that reported details of a conversation about an attempt by Ethiopia’s Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) to silence journalists working for the country’s largest independent Amharic language newspaper, the Addis Neger.
He says he did not realise that the particulars of the conversation would be transmitted to the US state department. Mr Ashine says that as far as he was concerned, that particular conversation, like many other conversations he has had with foreign diplomats and Ethiopian politicians, was in confidence. He thought no more about it until un-edited versions of the US diplomatic cables hit the media at the beginning of September.
Mr Ashine was furious:
“Yes, it is very irresponsible. Some days ago I was living peacefully in my hometown and I was doing my job peacefully. Now it has created a lot of mess in my life. Unexpectedly I had to leave the country within 48 hours. It is a big mess and I think WikiLeaks is responsible for this. I don’t know what I can do against Wikileaks but I think that legally they are responsible for all this mess against me.”
A statement by WikiLeaks says, “The Ethiopian journalist is not identified 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.”
However, the text of the cable leaves little room for doubt: “Later that day, a contact within GCAO told the Addis Ababa-based Daily Nation reporter Argaw Ashene (Ashine, ed) that the GCAO had drawn up a list of the six top Addis Neger officials, including Tamerat, who they plan to target in order to silence the newspaper’s analysis.”
Mr Ashine says the WikiLeaks statement is untrue and misleading, “WikiLeaks should’ve taken precautions. I’m suffering the consequences now.”
No legal action
In an interview with New Scientist magazine, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange defended the decision to release the diplomatic cables without redaction because other organisations had already published the un-redacted texts.
Mr Assange said his organisation’s ‘harm minimisation efforts’ were irrelevant and redundant after journalists with Britain’s Guardian newspaper published the decryption key for the computer files containing all the US State Department cables that had been leaked to WikiLeaks.
Although he doesn’t know exactly what the consequences will be, Mr Ashine says the case is far from closed. He still holds WikiLeaks legally responsible for his current predicament and says that once he has found a place to settle, he will consider his options.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (see box) told RNW that they did not intend to pursue legal action against WikiLeaks, nor was any other group as far as they knew.
Mr Ashine says that his journalistic activities may have eventually forced him to leave the country anyway; he’s worked as a journalist in Ethiopia for the last 12 years, some of the time with the Kenyan paper the Daily Nation. The circumstances have always been difficult and the authorities in Addis Ababa consider him to be a bit of a troublemaker:
“Yes, frequently there was a problem. The complaints came from the minister of foreign affairs, from the minister of information and some other officials. They complained that the story was not balanced and asked me, ‘why do you write like this?’ But we have a Foreign Correspondents Association, they deal with these issues most of the time.”
Since the 2005 election, criticising the government has become almost impossible. The authorities are using the new anti-terrorism law to silence dissidents and muzzle the opposition. Although he longs to go home to his family and his job, Argaw Ashine doesn’t expect to be able to return home unless something changes.
He says that because Western governments provide financial and technical support to Addis Ababa, they have the moral responsibility to help foster change in Ethiopia. He says there must be a link between developmental aid and good governance. He adds, “otherwise the stability that the West so wants to see in Ethiopia will be at the cost of the welfare of its people, and that is a very unpleasant situation.”
He hopes to see his family in a safe place soon.