Driven Out: Journalists and Exile

On the 11th World Refugee Day, we gathered in the lecture theatre of the Free Word Centre to hear the testimonies of three exiled journalists and the price they paid for speaking out. The day also marked the publishing of a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) entitled Journalists in Exile: Iran, Cuba Drive Out Their Critics by Elisabeth Witchel, Campaign Consultant at CPJ. The evening was chaired by Rohan Jayasekera, Associate Editor of Index on Censorship, who began by addressing the pain experienced by those forced into exile and, once safe, the ongoing problems they face. He lamented the fact that journalists are not adequately supported in their “right to write” which in itself is “a denial of sustenance to the creative person”.

Elisabeth Witchel commenced her speech with the chilling question: “What do you do when faced with the choice between prison and exile, or you receive threats to your life and colleagues around you are being silenced?” Her report is the fifth of its kind and the result of ten years’ work. It reveals the stark reality facing journalists that speak out. According to the report, in the last 12 months 67 journalists were forced into exile, with Cuba and Iran ahead of the running with a total of 18 each. The figures also show that over the last decade 649 journalists have fled their home countries and of these numbers, 592 are still in exile. For Elisabeth, there are three key strands to the report; firstly it aims to highlight the trials faced by journalists and the numbers persecuted worldwide, secondly it seeks to demonstrate the work of CPJ in assisting and supporting those in need, and thirdly it constitutes a testament to those still suffering. (A copy of Elisabeth’s speech follows this report.)

Sarata Jabbi-Dibba, the former Vice-President of the Gambia Press Union, was sentenced to 2 years in prison for sedition and criminal defamation (after the unsolved murder of Deyda Hydara, the editor of her newspaper). She described the months spent in prison as hellish, including the traumatic daily visits from her 6 month old baby to breast-feed. And once safely in the UK, she spoke with emotion of the constant feeling of uncertainty whilst awaiting her claim for asylum. Thankfully, organisations such as CPJ and Amnesty were able to assist her in this process, and by helping to secure visas. They were even able to secure safe passage for her children to Birmingham a matter of weeks ago. Sarata acknowledged how lucky she had been; how the fact that her work is readily available on the internet as proof her profession, alongside evidence of the very real threat to her life, had had a considerable impact on her particular case.

Yousef Azizi Banitorf, a writer, journalist, human rights campaigner and a member of Iran’s Arab ethnic minority, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2008 for ‘acting against national security’, ‘propaganda against the state’ and a host of other crimes. Iran, he declared, is the world’s largest jail for journalists. In the two years since the presidential elections he explained that more than 200 journalists have been detained. The culture of intimidation, harassment and censorship is rife. He went on to give the names and dates of just a handful of those who have been detained, gone missing, or been forced into exile in recent months. The focus of his work, however, is to report on and bear witness to the unjust treatment of non-Persian writers in Iran, who often don’t feature in the news. He concluded with the powerful and uplifting words, “we don’t lose hope” and will continue to “fight for the freedom to write… and for freedom of expression without limits”. (A copy of Yousef’s speech follows this report.)

The third journalist from the panel to speak was Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, a Sri Lankan writer and press freedom activist. After the brutal murder of the prominent journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009, Uvindu was faced with the decision of whether to remain or flee. While many colleagues travelled to a safe house in Bangalore, Uvindu came to the UK, where he had been granted asylum once before in 2001. Expecting to return to Sri Lanka after two weeks, he soon found that he was unable to do so and was forced to seek asylum. During this time he was offered a desk and computer by Index on Censorship which enabled him to continue working. Despite their help, it was a year before the decision for asylum was granted. For Uvindu, the most unbearable element of exile was the “psychological effect” of being negatively portrayed in the Sri Lankan media. As the Director of the Sri Lanka Press Company monitoring election violence, Uvindu had been working for no pay. Yet still he was slandered, called a “Western crony” and even a CIA operative. At the heart of his speech lay the argument that living in exile in Britain is “not a good life” as some people think it may be, and it is far better to remain working in your own country if at all possible.

As the platform then opened up to the floor we heard from a number of people whose experiences of exile shed more light on the difficulties faced and sacrifices made during the process. Charles, a journalist for twenty years in Cameroon, spent 40 days in prison in his home country, where he was tortured and brutalised for speaking out against the government. After arriving in the UK he spent a total of 52 days incarcerated in 6 of the UK’s 10 detention centres. He said he was close to giving up and returning to Cameroon, but he persevered and after 7 long years was granted asylum.

Another audience member, now living and working in Wales, declared that he never felt so humiliated and inhuman as when claiming asylum in the UK. Obliged to work as a waiter and security guard during this period, he could no longer find time or inclination to write.

Next we heard the inspiring tale of the exiled independent radio station SW Radio Africa, who broadcast daily from London into the homes of Zimbabwe. They provide unbiased, democratic news and act as a forum for political views and opinion. They were forcibly shut down after just six days and now continue to broadcast from the UK.

Henry, another Zimbabwean, argued that the greatest trap and obstacle to be overcome for journalists in exile is inactivity. He continued that with the minimal amount of resources it is possible for people to continue writing, using blogs and social media to continue the fight from afar to expose injustice and corruption.

As the debate drew to a close, Elisabeth concluded with a reminder that there are many ways to get involved with the work of CPJ, PEN and Index on Censorship to help journalists like the ones we heard from today gain safe passage out of danger and, more importantly, help them continue their work once safe.

Report by Bobbie Winter-Burke

Driven Out: Journalists and Exile – Opening Presentation. Elisabeth Witchel, Committee to Protect to Journalists

Thank you so much for coming and to English PEN and Index on Censorship for co-hosting this event and to the panellists for joining us this evening.

I would like to start with some questions.

What do you do when you are given the choice between prison and exile? Or when you see your friends and colleagues taken by the dozen to jail – jails notorious for the torture that takes place there? Or when you receive threats and two of men who preceded you in your job were killed following similar threats?  These are the questions that have driven nearly 70 journalists into exile over the last year.

Today CPJ released its annual survey of journalists in exile – this is the fifth year we have published the survey which is based on 10 years worth of data. In it we look at trends both over the last year as well as the last decade.

What we found is all too often journalists are pushed through fear of imprisonment, threats of violence and ongoing harassment and intimidation to flee their countries and seek safety in exile. In the last 10 years 649 journalists have fled their countries to escape persecution for their work. If you average this it amounts to at least one journalist leaving his or her homeland every week.  Based on our research, only one in ten of these cases return.

Over the last year Iran and Cuba, two of the world’s most repressive nations when it comes to freedom of expression, each forced 18 journalists out of their countries, more than any other nation for this period. 
This the second consecutive year Iran has topped the list of countries driving journalists into exile. There, the  government has waged a massive two year long crackdown on free expression that began with the disputed 2009 election and imprisoned record numbers of journalists and activists.

Iranian journalist Alireza Kambiz Shambankare who is featured in the report did not want to be one of these numbers. Initially he received warnings from his family and colleagues but thought he could weather the storm. As the crackdown continued, he grew more worried for himself but also for whose names among his contacts he might reveal if he were interrogated and tortured. He left the country and began a months-long odyssey through Tajikistan, India and Turkey where he is a refugee and waits for resettlement to the United States.

In Cuba the government released 50 political prisoners including many journalists as part of a deal brokered by the Catholic Church and the Spanish government. The deal brought an end to what is known as Black Spring – when in 2004 the government arrested its critics and sentenced them lengthy prison terms. But the price of freedom was high. Havana demanded the prisoners would have to leave Cuba for Spain immediately – 18 journalists left Cuba under these circumstances in the last year with their families. One journalist Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona told us his family was given two hours to pack their belongings and say goodbye. 

In the Horn of Africa threats and violence against Somali journalists and repressive regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea sent a combined total of 14 journalists on the run. Hassan Jaile Mohamed left Somalia after he was held hostage in his radio station at gunpoint by militia groups.  Jaile had already survived a shooting and had lost two colleagues from his station in recent years, shot and killed by the same militia group. Other countries that sent journalists into exile in the last year include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Azerbaijan, Mexico and The Gambia among others. 

In the survey we found the leading cause of journalists going into exile over the last year was threat of imprisonment. But over the last decade threat of violence was the leading cause, with significant numbers of journalists fleeing countries where violent attacks take place and more often than not the perpetrators remain at large. These include in addition to Somalia, Iraq (55), Sri Lanka (25), Colombia (20 ) , Haiti (18) among others. 

While Iran and Cuba led the last year, looking at the last decade nearly half the journalists in exile come from only five countries, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and Zimbabwe. 

In the cases CPJ has worked to help, we find there are few options for getting a journalist out of danger and the challenges they face are immense. While journalists might apply for asylum once they arrive in countries like the UK, elsewhere in Europe and North America, many are stuck in limbo, in neighboring countries unable to get a visa to a more stable location.

Except in very rare cases, there is no visa for someone in this situation – in fact the profile of a journalist, writers or human rights defender facing imminent risk for their work is often grounds for rejection of a standard visitor’s visa, while there exists no mechanism to process asylum from overseas. So they take on dangerous journeys, or land in precarious situations in neighboring countries where they seek refugee status and resettlement -process that can take years if it happens at all.

Meanwhile, it leaves the individual to get by in harsh, often impoverished circumstances with little opportunity to legally work.  Hassan Jaile Mohamed, whom I mentioned before, recently lost his leg due to health problems that deteriorated through his dangerous journey from Somalia to Kenya and inability to access medical care. There needs to be  better responses by embassies and greater access to expedited resettlement.

Even for those who have successfully resettled or have asylum, life is not always much easier. For the Cuban journalists, once the euphoria of release and reuniting with family passed, they confronted a new range of struggles  – with no work prospects, financial hardship, all on top of the immense emotional and psychological toll their situations and past persecution have taken.  This is often the case for journalists with asylum in other countries.  We also hear stories of journalists who encounter asylum delays- Cameroonian journalist Charles Artagagna who is here in the audience tonight as well received asylum this year after waiting seven years and facing near deportation 3 times.

Another statistic we looked at was to what extent journalists could still be journalists in exile. We found of all journalists currently in exile, only about ¼ are working in journalism-related professions. This is due to language barriers or their expertise does not translate into the new media markets they are in. This is enormously frustrating for them personally, but also of great concern because it means those voices important to bringing a diversity of views to their countries are de facto silenced.

On the bright side however, there have emerged many vibrant exile media projects. Determined journalists have launched internet publications, newspapers  and radio outlets in exile. These are starting to make an impact a recent study from the US based Center for International Media Advancement found either in disseminating news in their home countries or bringing news out to international audiences.

We have published this report for several reasons. To highlight conditions for journalists in countries they escape; to advocate for stronger responses from the international community to helping journalists in this plight but most importantly to give testament to them. I’ve talked about a great many numbers, but behind each one are extraordinary stories of people who have taken terrible risks to do their jobs and lost everything.

I will turn over now to our other panellists who can tell the experience far better than I can.

But I will first share something a journalist from Uzbekistan living in Europe recently said to me:

When I was forced into exile, and for a long time afterwards, I felt very guilty about my family, because my journalistic work destroyed their safety and our home. But I also remembered, what my husband said to me, when I had to leave the country: “The world is always cruel against journalists who report the truth. Prison or exile are the biggest compliments a journalist can receive for his or her work. But exile is better than a prison.”

I think that is a choice no one should ever have to make.

Iran, the world’s biggest prison for journalists – Yousef Azizi

Iranian journalists inside Iran are valuable in reflecting the news and events. So, this year’s UNESCO Prize for Press Freedom Day awarded to jailed Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi.

Iranian journalists in the past decades, although they were, the target of terror, death, imprisonment, intimidation and repression of the theocratic regim but in the past two years, after the presidential election show, Ahmadinejad’s government intensifies crackdown on journalists and created the barriers to free flow of information.

More than two hundred journalists have been detained since June 2009 and security files are made up for them. Some of these journalists, including my friend Ahmad Zeidabadi, are in prison for a long time and some of them are released on bail.

Many artists and writers have also been pressured or banned from working, including two famous film directors: Ja’far Panahy and Muhammad Rasoolof. And last week my colleague at the Writers’ Union, the economist and journalist Faribors Reiys Dana, was sentenced to one year in prison for criticising President Ahmadinejad’s economic policies six months ago. Even more funny that many of Ahmadinejad opponents criticise him frankly these days more than Reiys Dana, due to differences between him and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamnei.

Although there aren’t exact statistics on the legal exit or escape of asylum seekers or refugee journalists from Iran, but said there are over one hundred and fifty journalists and bloggers in the last two years have left the country. and the number of journalists who have left Iran in the six Last years, in total to be about three hundred people.

According to Iranian opposition, Twenty-six journalists are in custody now. But – in my opinion – this census does not include none Persian journalists. We have – in addition to Tehran – tens of Arab, Kurd, Azeri, Turkman and Baluchi journalists and bloggers who have been jailed in none Persian provinces out of the Capital Tehran. But unfortunately the Persian dominated opposition organizations don,t mention their names. For example my friends, Arab Ahwazi bloggers, Ali Torfi, Hashim Shabani, Ali Badri and Mohammad Ali Omouri are now detained in secret prision in Alahwaz city, sout west of Iran that much worse than  notorious Evin prison in Tehran because I have experienced both.

Thus, according to RSF or Reporters without Borders Organization, Iran is the world biggest prison for journalists. 

Many Iranian journalists who are engaged in professional activities outside the country or are waiting to obtain refugee status from the UN Offices in Turkey also have faced many pressures and threats. For example  Last Saturday (17 of June) someone called Rouhollah – who related to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders – attacked by big knife three Iranian Arab journalist: Mohammad Hassan Falahieh, Tawfiq Nawasser Ashouri, and Mohammed Hamid in Nevshair city near Ankara. But unfortunately the Persian media in exile didn,t publish this news.

On the other hand, the media landscape is not clear for new journalists in Iran. most journalists are often forced to make money or have been attracted by large media inorder to be the administrative staff or to work in the media that has voiced the reformists known as green media. or they are working in the margins of the profession to be engaged in ancillary activities. 

Unilateral flow of information outside of the country has caused another kind of censorship of Iranian journalists and they have been the gatekeepers for news and information found on this side of the border experience.

Diana Sangur one of the members of the  Award Board who has choiced Zeidabadi as winner of the award said: the UNESCO awarded Zeidabadi for courage, endurance and protection of free speech, democracy, human rights and tolerance, but it is the appreciation of many Iranian journalists who have been jailed as well.
The Iranian despotic regime continues to detain and even kill journalists, political activists and feminists all over the country.

The latest bad news is about another colleague. Jailed Iranian journalist and veteran activist Hoda Saber has died 8 days ago of a heart attack after going on hunger strike. Mr Saber, who was in his 50s, began his strike on second of June to protest about the death of fellow opposition figure Haleh Sahabi, during an incident at the funeral of her activist father.

Haleh Sahabi, 55, died on first of June during a confrontation with security forces at the funeral of her father, Ezatollah Sahabi.

She had been allowed out of custody to attend the ceremony. There are reports that she was hit by security forces and died of a heart attack.

This is a summary of what we suffer as writers, journalists and activists in Iran. But despite that, we don,t lose hope and fight for a democratic, federal and plural Iran. A country without journalists in prison, no discrimination against women and non-Persian ethnic groups. We are struggling for freedom of expression without any limits.

We hope that the Committee to Protect Journalists shall make greater efforts to Iranian seeking asylum abroad and non-Persians in particular.

Thanks to English PEN, Index on Censorship and CPJ.

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