A global partnership to assist journalists in distress

One of the most rewarding parts of my job at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) for the last eight years has been my work on our Journalists in Distress program. Through this program I have had quick glimpses into the lives of hundreds of courageous journalists from countries all over the world. Most of these journalists I will never meet, as I do this work sitting at my desk in Toronto, trying to get details about where they have come from, what danger they face, and what help they need. 

One of the most useful tools we’ve developed, along with our colleagues at organisations such as the CPJ in New York and the Rory Peck Trust in London, is something we call the Journalists in Distress listserv. It’s a simple concept–through one email address we gather together many of the international organizations doing similar work with writers and journalists–and we help each other by sharing information: Has anyone heard of this journalist? Has anyone helped this journalist? Can anyone add more funds to help a journalist since we can’t cover the cost by ourselves?

In the five years since a group of us met at the IFEX conference in Brussels, the listserv has grown. It’s now a busy hub that serves 19 human rights and free expression organizations. Many of the group’s members work like I do, sitting at a desk, reviewing requests that come in by phone, email, and mail. Some members are able to dedicate significant resources to this work–large dedicated funds for writers and journalists, and a network of researchers on the ground in different regions–but others are like CJFE, with perhaps just one person spending some of their divided resources trying to help one journalist at a time.

The work is still somewhat detached, and it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to truly understand the plight and therefore the needs of, let’s say, an Eritrean journalist who has fled to Sudan and lives in fear of being kidnapped and forced back across the border to end up in some nameless, hidden prison. But working with our colleagues across the world has been an enormous help to us and means that the support CJFE brings to this ever-growing problem is not just a drop in the bucket; instead it works in concert with all the drops and cupfuls of support from this vital network of organizations. Together we create a web of lifelines that is protecting and sustaining hundreds and thousands of local journalists who put their lives on the line day after day.

At CJFE, one of our main contributions to this work is the moderation of this group’s listserv. I feel very proud that this list is helping so many people at organizations, big and small, to do amazing work. In June, I met with almost a dozen of the group’s members during the biannual IFEX General Meeting, this time held in the complex and beautiful city of Beirut. It was a pleasure to meet these virtual colleagues face-to-face, many for the first time, after years of talking with them by email. In Beirut, we decided that both CPJ and Rory Peck Trust would form a small advisory committee with CJFE to help guide the work of the group in future. We hope that in the coming years we can continue to develop this group and make sure that we are ready to meet the always-shifting challenges that lie ahead and provide all of us with the tools to do this work in the most effective way possible–together.

This entry is part of a series commemorating 10 years of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program.