Berhane (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star)
Berhane (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star)

CPJ’s exiled journalists survey: Behind the numbers

In 2007, my colleague Karen Phillips suggested we do something to mark World Refugee Day. Initially planning to publish a brief statement, I set about reviewing our data for background, checking in with older journalist cases about their current situation and looking broadly for trends to highlight. As the number of cases began counting into the hundreds, it became clear that what we had was a new indicator of press freedom conditions. Today, we’re marking our fifth year of publishing the CPJ survey of journalists in exile, which is based on 10 years of data on 649 cases. 

The survey developed out of a simple idea. When CPJ launched its Journalist Assistance program in 2001 (I served as the program’s coordinator from 2001 to 2009), we found that many of our cases involved journalists at risk for their work who needed leave the country. Some wanted to leave temporarily, others were seeking asylum in North America and Europe, and many were living in dire situations as refugees within their regions.

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Journalists in exile 2011

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Zimbabwe led the survey in the first year. Nearly 50 journalists–including much of the staff of what was then the country’s leading daily newspaper, The Daily News–were driven out between 2001 and 2005 by the Mugabe administration’s intimidation tactics and heavy-handed media laws. Over the next three years, high numbers of journalists targeted amid increasing violence in Somalia, Iraq, and Sri Lanka pushed those countries to the top.

Most recently, a crackdown on freedom of expression in Iran and the mass expulsion of 18 journalists from Cuba have made those countries the leading of source of exiled journalists. Throughout the last decade, steady numbers of journalists have fled repressive administrations in Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries that account for nearly 100 journalists going into exile since 2001.

Other countries did not hit such high numbers, but their exile trends link to major events that were hard felt by media in those countries. After government troops shot and killed hundreds of civilian protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan on May 13, 2005, at least 10 journalists fled the country as Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov mounted an intense campaign to intimidate and jail anyone in a position to bring news and evidence of the atrocity to international audiences. Among these is CPJ’s 2005 International Press Freedom Award Galima Bukharbaeva, who relocated outside the country fearing reprisal for her internationally acclaimed reporting on the massacre. Burkharbaeva now operates the comprehensive online news site Uznews. In total, at least 18 journalists have fled Uzbekistan since 2001.

Haiti’s volatile political climate in the first half of the last decade, when journalists were targeted for their anti-Aristide coverage, drove at least 10 journalists out of the country from 2001 to 2004. These include six journalists who shared a radio station in Gonaives in 2003 when pro-Aristide gangs attempted set the station on fire, and Pierre Elisem who–after barely surviving a bullet in the neck–sought asylum in the United States in 2004. Journalists continued to be targeted and more have fled the country (18 in total for the 10 year period) since the 2004 uprising, but not in such concentrated numbers. Five have returned.

These episodes have long dropped off the front page, but the lives of these journalists have been changed forever. Behind the numbers are stories of people, whose lives, families, and communities have been affected in devastating ways.

These stories include journalists who endured extreme persecution, such as imprisonment in appalling conditions, then emerged only to confront new tribulations. Ethiopian journalist Nardos Meaza spent nearly a year and a half in jail along with eight other journalists imprisoned in a 2005 crackdown on independent media. Upon their acquittals in 2007, Meaza and seven other journalists fled to neighbouring Kenya, where they applied for refugee status.

The group spent the next two years with little means to survive outside of modest support from CPJ and other organizations before they were slowly resettled outside the region into more stable circumstances–all except Meaza, who contracted tuberculosis, which meant deferment of his resettlement ot the United States. This left Meaza alone with little help for another year. “Sometimes, I may not get food even once a day,” he wrote to CPJ. “Each day brings me anxiety as I feel hopeless to survive.” Meaza has since been resettled with help from CPJ’s assistance program.

Families of journalists in exile are also a part of the story. CPJ has seen case after case of journalists forced into exile endure long separations from their families or see family members harassed, detained, or blacklisted following a journalist’s departure. It was eight years before Eritrean journalist Aaron Berhane–who fled in 2001 during a crackdown against private media–reunited with his wife and three children again in Canada. In the meantime, he lived with constant fear for their safety and for his brother, who was detained in Berhane’s absence. Haitian journalists Roby and Michelle Mathieu waited two years until their 4-year-old son Stanley received permission to join his parents in the United States, where they had been granted asylum.

Some journalists have painstakingly put the pieces of their lives back together through extraordinary determination. Pakistani journalist Majid Babar went to the U.S. in 2004 after rankling fundamentalist groups with his coverage of sensitive issues and work as a fixer for foreign correspondents. He worked at a gas station in the States for three years until he earned enough money to bring his family over. Since then, he has been slowly making his way back into the media profession and now has a position with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s office in Prague.

While some journalists have found satisfaction with their new lives, many others said they feel deeply the burden of starting over. They are often coping with post-traumatic stress and the desire to succeed again. One thing is clear: Help and support, whether financial or moral, is invaluable in helping journalists who have risked everything and lost so much.

CPJ has seen journalists benefit enormously from emergency grants to help them get to safety, but just as often we have heard from journalists that being in contact throughout this vulnerable period has been a lifeline. In a recent interview, Iranian journalist-in-exile Alireza “Kambiz” Shabankare said, “Sometimes you just need someone to listen to you.”

And all 649 journalists cited in this survey have stories worth hearing.