At-risk journalists who must flee home countries often find few quick and safe options

In 2018, journalist Mohammad Shubaat was in Daraa, Syria, caught between advancing forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the closed borders of Israel and Jordan. Despite the dire threat to Shubaat and many of his colleagues, it would take over a year of intense negotiations with some 20 countries by the Committee to…

In 2018, journalist Mohammad Shubaat was in Daraa, Syria, caught between advancing forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the closed borders of Israel and Jordan. Despite the dire threat to Shubaat and many of his colleagues, it would take over a year of intense negotiations with some 20 countries by the Committee to Protect Journalists and partner groups to find safe havens for the 69 at-risk journalists CPJ identified, including him.

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When journalists are forced to flee their countries, factors such as criminal charges and lack of access to visas often force them to undertake perilous journeys that land them in unprotected environments. And once they have fled, journalists face a new set of challenges. CPJ has worked on hundreds such cases since the Journalist Assistance program was launched 20 years ago, and found that exile has become its own form of censorship. Some face direct intimidation, such as physical attacks in their new homes or threats to the family members they left behind, while many more are pushed out of the profession because of difficulties finding employment and language barriers in their new environments.

A November 2020 report by a panel of legal experts found most journalists at risk are “unable to move to safety in time because the pathways open to them are too few in number and those that do exist are too slow, burdensome and difficult to navigate to be capable of providing practical and effective recourse.” The panel called on states to “introduce a new emergency visa for journalists at risk,” which would allow journalists to quickly flee danger in their home countries and gain temporary refuge. CPJ endorsed this recommendation, having found over 20 years of helping hundreds of journalists flee that when they are able to travel quickly to safe, supportive environments, they are far more likely to continue in the profession and eventually return home.

From left to right: Syrian journalists Mousa al-Jamaat, Mohammad Shubat, and Ayham Gareeb work at Baynana’s newsroom in Madrid, Spain, in April 2021. (Baynana/Okba Mohammad)

In early 2021, four of the 69 Syrian journalists–who had settled in Spain–launched the country’s first refugee-run online magazine, Baynana, dedicated to serving Spain’s growing Arabic-speaking community. But this success came at a high price. To mark World Refugee Day, CPJ is calling on governments around the world to establish emergency visas for journalists that would allow them to quickly flee danger in their home countries, seek temporary refuge, and continue to work. Here are five reasons why, illustrated with case studies drawn from CPJ’s Journalist Assistance work, recent interviews, and past reporting:

  1. Visa hurdles force journalists into dangerous situations

Whether escaping harsh government crackdowns or waves of anti-press violence, the ability to flee quickly is crucial to survival. This leaves little time for a protracted visa process. But time is not the only issue. The same circumstances that put journalists at risk also count against them when it comes to meeting the stringent requirements–such as proof of return–that most countries demand.

Journalists in danger instead often resort to traveling across porous borders to neighboring countries, where they remain stuck for long periods waiting out the long, uncertain resettlement process of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or facing a legal maze in the new country. In addition to living under harsh conditions, journalists have told CPJ they feel vulnerable to attack, deportation, or forced return.

The newsroom of independent broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma, in 2019. (CPJ/Shawn Crispin)

Case studies:

  • Zerihun Tesfaye, an Ethiopian political reporter for the now-defunct critical outlet Addis Neger, fled in 2009 after learning the government planned to arrest much of the staff. He escaped to neighboring Kenya, the only option available to him without a visa. Tesfaye spent four years living in hardship and constant fear that Ethiopian authorities would locate him in Nairobi. He eventually resettled in the United States. Since leaving Ethiopia, though he has contributed unpaid reporting and translation for some journalism-related projects, Tesfaye told CPJ that has not been able to resume a career as a journalist and works a variety of different jobs to make a living. 
  • In May 2021, Thai authorities arrested three Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) journalists for alleged illegal entry. The journalists fled from Myanmar, where dozens of journalists have been arrested by the military junta since the February coup, including several affiliated with DVB. The journalists received a suspended sentence of seven months and were relocated to a safe third country, DVB announced on June 7.

2. The asylum process poses professional challenges

Even when they overcome visa hurdles, journalists still face immense challenges in their host countries. One difficulty can be gaining permission to stay long enough until it is safe to return. Visa extensions or status changes are hard to obtain, often leaving journalists with the choice of applying for asylum or returning at great peril, as seen with the 2007 murder of Iraqi reporter Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari.

While asylum can bring long-term safety, for most journalists it is an option of last resort. The asylum process—which differs from country to country—can take years with no guarantee of success at the end. Once the process is started, travel is generally prohibited until asylum is granted; if the journalist is overseas without his or her family, going the asylum route means a lengthy separation. It also means a long wait for work authorization and this, combined with the difficulty in penetrating the media job market in a new country, means journalists in exile must look outside the profession to make ends meet.

Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen speaks during CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards on November 20, 2018, in New York City. (Getty Images for CPJ/AFP/Dia Dipasupil)

Case studies:

  • Pakistani journalist Kiyya Baloch went to Norway to study journalism in 2017 and get a temporary respite from threats he’d been receiving. While away, conditions for journalists in Pakistan deteriorated and in 2020, an alleged leaked government memo accused him of anti-state activities. Faced with new threats, Baloch has struggled to extend his stay. His last request for a student visa was rejected but he told CPJ he fears that applying for asylum would cement his status as a state enemy, making his eventual return more dangerous.
  • After six years of imprisonment and three years of living under heavy surveillance, Tibetan documentary filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen decided in 2017 it was time to flee China. With no passport and his communications closely monitored, he was reliant on smugglers who took him through Vietnam and Thailand. From there he went to Switzerland and eventually to the U.S., where it took him another year to get asylum. Despite winning international recognition for his work—including CPJ’s 2012 International Press Freedom Award—Wangchen told CPJ that he has struggled to afford medical treatment and to find work in the U.S.
  1. Threats, physical attacks follow journalists in exile

Journalists often continue to face threats and harassment after fleeing to countries they had presumed to be safe. Just how far authoritarian governments will go to hunt down their critics was made clear in May 2021 when Belarusian authorities diverted a commercial passenger flight to Minsk in order to arrest exiled journalist Raman Pratasevich. CPJ has documented many other attacks on journalists in exile, including death threats, abductions, assaults, and even murders. State campaigns to discredit journalists after they flee to safety and threats and legal action against family members who remain also serve as chilling reminders to journalists that their reporting can bring reprisals wherever they are.

Meanwhile, journalists who resettle in countries where they are part of a larger diaspora are vulnerable to attacks by members of their new communities. And research by CPJ and other organizations has found that authoritarian governments use surveillance technology to spy on journalists living overseas.

These risks make patent the need for host countries to take measures to protect journalists residing within their borders against security threats and extradition attempts as well as to offer havens for immediate family members. Where this is not possible, journalists should be able to seek relocation to another country. 

Turkish editor Can Dündar during an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Germany, on April 7, 2017. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

Case studies:

  • After the Islamic State group captured his town in 2013, Syrian broadcast journalist Zaher al-Shurqat relocated to nearby Gaziantep, Turkey. In April 2016, however, a masked gunman fatally shot al-Shurqat on the street. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killing, one of four assassinations of a Syrian journalist living in Turkey it claimed between 2015 and 2016.
  • Can Dündar, editor of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper and a 2016 IPFA honoree, went to Berlin in 2016 to escape anti-state charges amid President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on the media. In Germany, home to a large Turkish community, Dündar is regularly subject to threats from Erdoğan supporters and has required police protection at times. Dündar’s flight has not stopped charges from mounting against him. In December 2020, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to at least 27.5 years in prison.

4. Criminalization of journalism makes finding refuge more difficult

Journalists around the world are routinely jailed on anti-state or criminal defamation charges, trumped-up charges such as drug possession, or even without charge because of their work. CPJ has found that those who are facing charges or who have a criminal history are likely to be stopped at borders and can have a harder time getting approved for visas or asylum. These journalists are also vulnerable to extradition. Criminalizing journalism also gives repressive governments a pretext to revoke passports or even citizenship altogether, further complicating the ability of journalists in exile to secure status in their new countries, or to work or travel.

Azerbaijani journalist and press freedom activist Emin Huseynov. (Emin Huseynov)

Case study:

  • Azerbaijani journalist and press freedom activist Emin Huseynov went into hiding in 2014 to escape criminal accusations of tax evasion and engaging in “illegal business over unregistered grant contracts.”  Knowing he was banned from traveling, Huseynov took refuge in the Swiss embassy, where he stayed for over a year until safe passage out of the country could be arranged. Azerbaijan retaliated by stripping Huseynov of his citizenship. Huseynov, who has refugee status in Switzerland, has filed a case against Azerbaijan through the European Court of Human Rights accusing the country of using deprivation of nationality to silence dissenting and critical voices.

5. Better solutions mean better chances of continuing in journalism

In its years of working with journalists in exile, CPJ has found that when those at risk have expedient routes to temporary safe havens and access to professional support networks, they are in better positions to continue and even strengthen their work. CPJ has partnered with regional groups, academic institutions, and other programs to set journalists up in well-supported environments. A review of CPJ’s cases found that in these instances, journalists are far more likely to stay in the profession and eventually return home compared with those who had no option but to flee into volatile situations, engage in the grueling resettlement process, or claim asylum.

In the last decade, in cases where CPJ was able to place journalists with host groups and institutions, over 90 percent returned to their countries within a few years.

Mexican reporter Patricia Mayorga. (Patricia Mayorga)

Case studies:

  • In 2017, Proceso reporter Patricia Mayorga’s close colleague, Miroslava Breach Velducea, was murdered in Mexico. With good reason to think she would be next, Mayorga, who covered crime and corruption, relocated with her daughter to Peru through a safe-house program hosted by regional group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad and with support from CPJ. While in exile, Mayorga—a 2017 IPFA honoree—was able to continue reporting and work with other journalists from the region. She returned to Mexico in 2020, and now trains independent journalists. 
  • Ahmad Noorani, a co-founder and reporter at the independent investigative news website FactFocus, endured a brutal assault, threats, and de facto blacklisting before deciding it was time to leave Pakistan. In 2020, he took an academic placement in the United States through the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, with support from Scholars at Risk, Protect Defenders EU, and CPJ. Although COVID-19 curtailed his activities, the support structure helped Noorani use his time to pursue an investigative piece exposing alleged controversial financial dealings of a former high-ranking military official.

Recommendations

Since the creation of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program in 2001, the single most common request for support the team has received has been for emergency relocation. Journalists working in dangerous places often face no choice but to move themselves and their families in order to escape threats. Usually they rely on civil society organizations to help them process their cases and assist in engaging with governments. 

Governments play a critical role in ensuring the safe and successful relocation of journalists at risk. This includes financial support for emergency programs and coordination with civil society and other governments on relocation options. But it is also imperative that governments have in place policies that allow for swift relocation to their own countries. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists therefore offers the following recommendations:

To national governments

  • Create special emergency visas for journalists that would allow quick evacuation and relocation to safety. The visas should be granted to individuals who are at risk in direct relation to their work reporting and/or disseminating the news. This is in line with the recommendations of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom.
  • Communicate the nature and requirements for these visas to civil society and media organizations and create a process through which these groups can submit cases for consideration. 
  • In order for visas to offer protection, the process should be expedient (no longer than 15 days) and, when necessary, include family members who are also at risk. In cases judged to be acute, consider immediate relocation with a secondary review of the visa case. 
  • Train embassy and consular staff on special emergency visas and provide them with sufficient resources to ensure the proper processing of cases. Where possible, confer direct authority to ambassadors over the visa decision-making process. 
  • Create processes by which journalists can appeal denials. 
  • Recognize that criminal charges against journalists are a commonly used form of persecution and ensure the visa process allows for full consideration of these cases.
  • To promote the ability of journalists forced into exile to carry on their work, temporary emergency visas should include work authorization provisions.
  • Offer measures to protect journalists residing within their borders against security threats and attempts to have them extradited on criminal charges levied in connection to the journalist’s work.
  • Set up protocols allowing for emergency visas for journalists to be processed in a second country. This would ensure that journalists who remain at high risk in their exile locations maintain access to the emergency visa process, and provide an alternative pathway to journalists who cannot communicate freely with embassies while in their home countries or who must try to cross borders undetected.

To the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

  • Grant refugee status to journalists at risk, regardless of the country where they apply.
  • Recognize that journalists, due to their public profiles, remain at high risk among some refugee communities and expedite their resettlement applications and/or give them immediate access to available protections.

To media outlets, academic institutions, and foundations

  • Media outlets should support journalists in exile by establishing internships, temporary positions, and mentorship programs.
  • Media outlets should set up evacuation protocols for freelance or staff hires who come under threat and establish security liaisons to work with civil society organizations and advocate for visas. This should apply not only to reporters, editors, and photographers but also to local translators, drivers, and other support personnel.
  • Academic institutions should establish fellowships, research opportunities, and scholarships for journalists at risk.
  • Foundations should provide support for fellowships, scholarships, exile media sites, and research projects that enable journalists to remain professionally engaged while in exile.

Additional reporting by CPJ Emergencies Director María Salazar Ferro and CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras.


This content originally appeared on Committee to Protect Journalists and was authored by Elisabeth Witchel.


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