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Hardship in exile no bar to journalists exposing abuse and violence

June 26, 2013

Journalists fleeing violence and imprisonment find political asylum, but have to face formidable odds to survive in the country of exile. Despite such hardships, by using the media tools available in their adopted home, they document and publicise the abuses and suffering in the country they fled.
In a statement on the eve of World Refugee Day on June 20, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that over the past 12 months it had helped 55 journalists to escape persecution. The statements addressed two main reasons for the exodus: fear of violence and fear of imprisonment. Iran (9) and Somalia (8) witnessed the highest number of fleeing journalists, “followed by Ethiopia, Syria, Eritrea, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Sudan and 13 others.”
It is noteworthy that two journalists from among this group of countries are recipients of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism – Karla Rivas from Mexico (2011) and J. S. Tissainayagam from Sri Lanka (2009).
Violence against journalists was highest in Syria where 28 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2012 and CPJ assisted five to flee the country, although the exact number is difficult to ascertain due the armed conflict there. CPJ said it had supported 18 journalists to flee into exile over the years. Syria is followed by Somalia where 12 were killed last year and 70 journalists have fled the country from 2008.
The second important reason for flight is journalists fearing imprisonment. In 2012, Turkey’s prisons held the highest number of journalists, (49) with Iran (45) close on its heels. CPJ said it has assisted five Iranian journalists to flee the country.
CPJ says that an important reason that journalists decide to flee is the impunity media-persecuting government officials enjoy. It pointed to a correlation between countries with a high rate of exodus and high levels of impunity: “Countries with high impunity rates often see an increase in violence because perpetrators feel emboldened by the slim chances of being caught. The result is self-censorship and exile.”
Mexican journalist Veronica Basturo, whose family was threatened with murder, was assisted by CPJ to flee in 2012. “Like Basurto, most of the journalists fled into exile only as a last resort, leaving behind careers, livelihoods, and family to escape forms of intimidation including violence, imprisonment, and threat of death,” said CPJ.
While some journalists find asylum overseas, they often face great hardship in finding work, in the naturalisation process and lack of social support. Reporters without Borders (RSF) based in Paris, brought the plight of exiled journalists to the attention of the UN Commissioner Human Rights (UNHCR).
“We call on UNHCR … to establish an alert mechanism with a designated referral officer within each of its local offices so that cases involving refugee journalists and human rights activists can be identified and handled more quickly because they are particularly exposed to danger,” RSF said. The letter included two more recommendations: to upgrade security to journalists in initial countries of refuge because they may continue facing threats from government of their countries of origin and for expeditious access to individual protection and resettlement in their country of adoption.
RSF has also updated guidelines for journalists seeking asylum in the USA or Europe on procedures, requirements and information to help journalists start life again.
Despite the persecution they experienced back home and daunting odds as they try to make a living as refugees, journalists in exile continue to fight for freedom, human rights and justice in the land from which they were uprooted. They use the internet, social media, radio and other platforms in their country of exile to inform the international community of the dire conditions in their home countries.
The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a project of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) compiled a report on the exiled journalists and their importance for promoting democracy and human rights.  Writing in the 2011 its author Bill Ristow observed, “[t]heir (journalists in exile) successes are manifold. They include numerous examples such as those above, in which the exile organizations have had a direct impact on events in their homelands. Beyond that, many international journalism experts argue the importance of the exile media includes informing the outside world of what’s happening to their countrymen, and nurturing a structure of independent journalism that someday could be re-established at home.”
For those interested, a celebration of the bravery and steadfastness of four Sri Lankan journalists exiled in Europe and the USA is Silenced Voices, a documentary by director Beate Arnestad.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.