Argaw Ashine has served as a journalist for 18 years at different media organizations inside Ethiopia, including governmental, private and foreign media outlets. He was also in charge of various journalism unions in the country.Ashine was one of the people whose names were listed in a Wikileaks report as a main source for the now defunct Addis-Neger Amharic newspaper. He left Ethiopia on September 2011 after the Ethiopian Federal Police gave him the ultimatum of either revealing his government sources or fleeing the country. He now resides in the U.S. and works as a researcher in media related issues. He also volunteers as the editor-in-chief for Wazema Radio – a dissident podcast he established together with other exiled Ethiopian journalists from Sweden and North America.
iREFUGEE talked to Ashine in an exclusive interview about his work at Wazema Radio — which marked its first anniversary this past June — and also discussed the release of jailed Ethiopian writers and other matters related to the Ethiopian media.
How and by whom was Wazema Radio established?
ASHINE: Wazema Radio was launched in June 2014 by four exiled journalists, namely the trio of the
former Addis-Neger newspaper — Mesfin Negash, Derese Getachew (PhD) and Mezegbu Hailu — and myself. We established Wazema to contribute our share in the struggle to bring political change to our homeland. The other objective is to create a platform for exiled Ethiopian journalists so that we can pursue our profession wherever we are. The third objective is to fill the void in the diaspora media where politics is often polarized and unethical journalism is rampant.
iREFUGEE: Who are Wazema’s audience, and how do you cover your operating costs?
ARGAW: Two-thirds of our audience are the tech-savvy who live in Ethiopia. We don’t have any financial support from anybody. We started it with our own money, except for logistical and technical support from a community radio here in America. Each of us has his own job. We want to be independent and we don’t want any financial contributions, so as not to compromise our independence and objectivity. We run the podcast as volunteers during our spare time.
iREFUGEE: This sounds strange. How do you manage to run a radio program without any financial source or income?
ARGAW: That is a very good question. Actually, we thought about it and we prepared our strategic plan to be financed by independent sources. We have also set up a business model to finance the radio by looking for funds from different sources. Our aim is to be supported by public and private donations that do not have a direct relation to Wazema’s editorial board. We would also like to be supported with skills and technological research to realize our plan.
iREFUGEE: You said earlier that your audiences are the tech-savvy in Ethiopia, but the Internet penetration there is just 0.01 percent. Doesn’t that neglect a large majority of Ethiopians who don’t have access to the Internet?
ARGAW: That is true and one of our plans is to reach out to the larger public; but to address the whole of Ethiopia requires huge resources. And don’t forget that recently, the number of mobile phone users in Ethiopia has grown to 24 million. These [mobile phone users] are our next target audience.
iREFUGEE: But what makes Wazema different from other Ethiopian diaspora media? Tell us why one should listen to your podcast?
ARGAW: In some ways we are not different. We just saw a void in some aspects and we are trying to fill in those gaps. Many of these Ethiopian diaspora media outlets have allegiances to political parties, ethnic organizations or both. Most of them are engaged in the economy of information recycling, they lack professionalism and ethics.
What makes us unique is that we are not interested in generating profits; the editorial board is professional and discusses issues ahead of time in order to set an agenda; and we have the ambition to stand out and serve as a platform for other exiled journalists — we have a legitimate cause.
iREFUGEE: And how far, do you think, did Wazema go in accomplishing its goals?
ARGAW: This past year was quite a journey and Wazema passed through a lot of challenges, but it is still here. During the first three months, Wazema had around 7-8 thousand listeners per day but nowadays that number has reached around 120,000 per day, and that is a big success. We have gained experience through it all, and I believe we showed the world that we still exist.
iREFUGEE: Now, let me take you to the release of some members of the Zone 9 collective earlier this month. What is your take on the event?
ARGAW: It’s a good news and I am happy about it. Their imprisonment was unfair to begin with, and they don’t have any political agenda. I have worked with some of them like Tesfalem Waldeyes and Edom Kassaye. Their arrest is painful, and all of them should be released. But don’t forget that it is not only the Zone 9 bloggers who are in prison. There are many people who are being incarcerated for having different opinions than the government. We will be content only when all Ethiopian prisoners of conscience are released.
iREFUGEE: Wazema was the one that broke the news about their release — how did you get the information?
ARGAW: We were following their cases from day one, and we have direct contact with them, so we were made aware when they got released. We were actually a bit late to release the news, because we wanted word of their release from themselves.
iREFUGEE: Some say their release is associated with President Obama’s visit.
ARGAW: Of course, it is. The Ethiopian government knows very well that President Obama will come with a big media entourage from around the world to cover his historic trip. The Ethiopian government is in a preemptive charm offensive, and it also desires to exploit Obama’s visit. The government knows that many of the media outlets will raise questions about these prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia. The media people know the country has the lowest human rights record regardless of its economic growth. Which is why it suddenly released some of these writers in order to avoid any questioning. The government can’t simply come up with a plausible justification to convict them.
iREFUGEE: Do you see any hope when it comes to the situation of freedom of expression in Ethiopia?
ARGAW: It is not about having hope or not, but there is going to be change in Ethiopia, it’s inevitable. We live in a very connected world. The Ethiopian government is in a paradoxical situation; on one hand it is trying to to sell itself with economic growth, and on the other hand it seems to follow the paths of Eritrea and North Korea by repressing its own citizens. The Ethiopian people are just demanding the basics of human rights. If the EPRDF (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front) fails to respect these basic universal rights, there could be two worst case scenarios: it will either be the EPRDF’s downfall or the country will plunge into chaos. The regime should allow participatory democracy and the choice is all in the hands of the EPRDF.
iREFUGEE: But democratization is not a one-way street. What about the opposition, the Ethiopian people and the media?
ARGAW: Yes, the people shouldn’t be an echo to the opposition — they should have to criticize them too, while the media should discharge its watchdog role. The opposition parties, both at home and abroad, have to be strong and work together in order to bring the desired political change in the country. There must be a platform in the media to bring all parties together. But unfortunately, we are falling prey to the regime’s divide and rule policy.
iREFUGEE: One of the things the private media is blamed for is that it tends to focus on negative stories about Ethiopia. Is that how Wazema functions?
iREFUGEE: ASHINE: Our job isn’t about disseminating negative stories about Ethiopia. We are Ethiopians and we would like to see positive things about our country. Indeed, we do broadcast those positive stories too. We are as much Ethiopians as EPRDF and we belong there. Our task is to create a platform for informed debate by entertaining the in-depth views of experts from different fields about socio-political situations in our country. Our role is to find issues and put them into perspective rather than just praise or negate. For example, we brought up the issue of the two-digit economic growth which Ethiopia claims registering for a decade. It was debated on and what we’ve found out is that both the World Bank and the IMF make such reports based on data from government institutions, instead of gathering it at grass-roots levels.
iREFUGEE: What about Ethiopia being in the list of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world this year?
ARGAW: Actually, Ethiopia hosted the lowest tourist numbers even by African standards. I think the journalist who published that report confused tourists with conference participants, as Ethiopia is hosting a lot of conferences these days.
iREFUGEE: Any message to exiled Ethiopian journalists?
ARGAW: I would tell them that they shouldn’t forget their watchdog role.
iREFUGEE: And your message to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn?
ARGAW: Please listen to the Ethiopian people.