In Nairobi, plans to improve aid to exiled journalists

Kassahun Yilma left Ethiopia quickly in December 2009. He didn’t have time to save money for the journey, choose a place to go, arrange housing or a job. He left his wife, his mother, his house and all his friends behind. Yilma didn’t know what lay ahead. He only knew that if he stayed, he risked becoming a victim of a government-waged campaign against Addis Neger, the newspaper where he worked as a reporter.  “I ran away just to save my life,” says Yilma, “because I was in fear for it.”

What he found has often been as difficult as what he left behind. In the first months, he was preoccupied with the most basic needs of survival: Shelter and food. Now, two years later, he worries about his job, and his future. “You don’t want to doubt yourself. You say, tomorrow, I’ll be successful in my profession,” says Yilma, who continues to report for an online version of Addis Neger. “But living in Nairobi, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Hundreds of journalists worldwide have been forced to leave their home countries to escape violence or persecution. Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, where chaos, war, and the threat of jail have forced dozens of journalists to seek refuge in neighboring countries. In the last decade, Ethiopia and Somalia have forced out more journalists than even Iraq and Iran.

But journalists’ problems don’t end at the border. Isolation, financial strain, and trauma can add to the pain of an arduous resettlement process. Worldwide in the past decade, only around 22 percent of exiled journalists find work in their profession, according to CPJ research. And in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, few have been able to return to their home countries.

CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program has provided help to more than 100 journalists in the region in the past 18 months, to cover medical expenses and other urgent needs. But sporadic grants aren’t enough to sustain journalists over the long term.

With that in mind, CPJ in conjunction with the Rory Peck Trust hosted a conference this week in Nairobi to improve assistance to the region’s journalists in exile. Around 50 participants, including representatives of international and regional human rights advocacy organizations, press freedom groups, and journalists in exile, gathered at the Fairview Hotel to consider better strategies for emergency assistance.

Despite the entrenched problems in the region, there were points of hope. One participant, Qaabata Boru, told of fleeing Ethiopia as a journalism student in late 2004. More than six years later, he remains in northern Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, with little hope for resettlement. Still, he has found a way to continue to practice journalism. Without pay, he works as editor-in-chief of the Kakuma News Reflector, an online publication that reports news from the refugee camp.

“Seeing crime, corruption, guards exploiting girls–it breaks my heart,” says Boru. “That’s why we started this newspaper.”

After three days of workshops and panels, participants committed to working together to research and address ongoing needs in emergency aid, medical and trauma assistance, legal help, and other challenges of journalists’ lives in exile. There are no easy answers. But participants said they left with a renewed commitment to finding solutions.

On Wednesday, CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe told participants that she believed the conference could be a first step in a sustained collaboration on the ground between regional groups and international organizations committed to improving opportunities for exiled journalists. “I hope this can serve as a model,” she said, “for CPJ’s work in other regions.”

For Yilma, the days of intense and focused work served another purpose. It was a distraction. “This week, for once, I wasn’t thinking about my resettlement.”

UPDATED: We’ve updated paragraph seven to reflect that Qaabata Boru left Ethiopia in 2004, not 2005.