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Living in limbo: The ongoing wait of journalists in exile

A supporter of former presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi holds an anti-Ahmadinejad newspaper during a Tehran rally in June 2009. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)The e-mails started on July 15, 2009, and have continued ever since—pleas for help from Iranian journalists who fled their country often with little money and scarce provisions to northern Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, and a host of other locales around the world. Many lived in hiding throughout Iran for weeks or months before crossing perilous borders when it soon became apparent that their homes and country were no longer safe havens for their return.

One veteran journalist and blogger (whose name I’m withholding for his protection) was on the run with his family for nearly six months coping with diabetes, hypertension, heart failure and fear before with the help of CPJ being evacuated to Europe. He went underground shortly after the June 12 elections and continued to provide some of the most disarming, disquieting and personal accounts of the post-election atmosphere and events. On June 16, as a wave of arrests swept up journalists, photographers, and bloggers, a neighbor warned him that security agents had stormed his apartment and searched the premises. He received warnings and threats in response to his work as he continued to report on his blog about human rights issues, such as the treatment and rape of detainees in Iran’s prisons:

“I was traced many times. Each time we quickly left our residence and ran away. Once we were forced to leave the remainder of our personal effects in our rented room and to avoid the agents who had followed us we had to leave for another city overnight. During this time, we stayed in 70 different houses, rented rooms or camping sites. Changing our names and appearances we avoided places where police or Basij might be present. On September 21, after I ran out of money and energy, we left Iran through the Kurdistan border, arriving Iraq. We lost our home and belongings during our escape and the last thing we lost was our car. I gave up my entire belongings in return for a few days of freedom so that I could defend my people's rights without suppression. What I had anticipated to be a few days turned into 105 days.”

The sense of insecurity in the lives of Iran’s journalists and their families is omnipresent. Whether at home or abroad one waits; in Iran you’re waiting in a cell or in the prison your home has become for you. Waiting in a second country for resettlement out of the region is no easier.

A female Iranian journalist fearing retaliation for her work arrived in India in October 2009 seeking protection. Less than five months later the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs ordered her deportation to Iran. The order was in response to the February bombing of a popular German bakery in Pune City, which ushered in a heightened atmosphere of suspicion of foreigners living in the area. Fearing return to Iran, she contacted CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program to help cancel the order. In collaboration with the Media Legal Defence Initiative based in the U.K., CPJ contacted Indian authorities in Pune who agreed to grant a stay of deportation. The order, to date, however, has not been fully cancelled.

One primary exit route for Iranians is through Turkey, where they are not required to obtain a visa prior to entering the country. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at present, 1,356 Iranian refugees and asylum seekers have fled to Turkey since June 2009. Although the U.N. agency says that there is not a significant increase in the numbers of Iranians entering, there is a telling shift in the profiles of those who fled. “Many of the newcomers are journalists, academics and/or perceived by the regime to be supporting the opposition,” said Metin Corabatir, UNHCR’s spokesman in Turkey, in an interview in May 2010 with Agence France-Presse.

One Iranian journalist waiting in Turkey for settlement in a third country is freelance journalist and human rights activist Aida Sadat. She was repeatedly harassed, interrogated, and physically assaulted in Iran and eventually fled in the aftermath of the June 2009 elections. She said she had been told by her attackers several times that next time she would be killed, but her attempts to find protection in Iran were futile. “I could not find any organization to defend me as a journalist,” Sadat said. “They had been silenced.”

Scores of other journalists fled Iran before the 2009 elections, under similar crackdowns no less threatening than those of the present day. In fact, July 2009 marked the 10th anniversary of another siege on the media when government authorities tried to muzzle free speech.

Assigned to one of the 32 Turkish cities accommodating asylum seekers, Iranian refugees wait for UNHCR to arrange third-country resettlement which except for the most vulnerable cases may take years. For nearly two years, veteran Iranian editor and publisher Ali Vahid has been waiting in Turkey; threats against his life have followed him throughout.

For photojournalist Javad Moghimi Parsa, whose symbolic photograph of post-election demonstrations appeared on the June 29, 2009, cover of Time magazine, his crime was sending photographs to enemy agencies—in this case, news agencies—a charge which saw many of his colleagues detained in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. He too, like Vahid, has received ongoing threats via e-mail and SMS to his mobile phone. Parsa, like many of his colleagues, told CPJ that just as Iranian refugees do not require a visa to enter Turkey, neither do Iran’s state agents who, they all believe, operate clandestinely within Turkey’s borders.

CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program continues to receive e-mails on a daily basis from Iranian journalists fleeing their homeland, their homes, and families due to false accusations of spying for a foreign government, acting against national security, having relations with foreigners, and propagating against the regime.

To date, Journalist Assistance has helped Iranian journalists resettle to Europe and North America by providing letters of support for their cases before the UNHCR and foreign embassies. We have provided emergency evacuation, airline tickets, and organized legal counsel and much needed financial aide, and, where necessary, medical assistance.

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