CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program supports journalists who cannot be helped by advocacy alone. In 2011, we assisted 171 journalists worldwide. Almost a fourth came from countries that made CPJ’s Most Censored list. Eight journalists from Eritrea, five from Syria, six from Cuba, and a whopping 20 from Iran sought our help after being forced to leave their countries, having suffered the consequences of defying censorship at home.
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Each of their stories is a little different. Some crossed borders on foot, at night, avoiding border surveillance. Others were stuffed into planes with their families, forbidden from returning, after years of imprisonment. Some have been granted asylum in Western countries. Others are lingering, in hiding, hoping to be relocated to a safe place.
The enemies they escaped, however, are similar. They are repressive states with a strong security apparatus dedicated to quashing dissent. They use imprisonment, or the threat of prison, to keep rebellious reporters in line. They employ torture and other kinds of prison brutality to teach a lesson — not only to those who have defied established censorship, but also to those who might.
The Eritrean stories are of particular cruelty. They are ones that are not often told due to the country’s highly functional system of censorship and repression. Currently, Eritrea has the second highest number of journalists in prison worldwide, after Iran. Journalists who have fled the country and its prisons have shared with CPJ some of the most gruesome details of their detention. One journalist said he was kept in a fenced-in field with dozens of other prisoners: shelter withheld; clothing forbidden; no sanitation; nourishment rare. Another said he was jailed for months in a dark underground cell. (Eritrean authorities have not allowed independent monitoring organizations access to the country’s prisons.)
Hidden away in similar conditions is the majority of what was once the country’s independent press, locked up during a massive crackdown in 2001. Of the 10 journalists arrested then, at least five are said to have died in custody, although CPJ has not been able to independently confirm these reports.
Today, with virtually no independent journalists reporting from inside the country, Eritrea’s censorship machinery is geared toward journalists in the official press corps. Those who report on stories that slightly deviate from the government’s editorial line are threatened, questioned, or jailed. One journalist, who escaped last year, told CPJ he lived in permanent fear because he never knew when he would do something that could upset the regime, even when trying to tightly follow its guidelines. He explained that, in the end, his fear gave him “no choice” but to flee.
Another exiled journalist said the decision to leave had been extremely difficult. Staying in Eritrea meant prison, he said. But crossing the border could mean death. Those who fled have done so by crossing the country’s borders on foot. They have travelled for days at time, mostly at night, trying to avoid armed guards said to shoot individuals attempting to leave.
In exile, however, the journalists continue to live in dread. Those who made it to Sudan, for instance, say the situation for Eritrean refugees there is risky. One exiled reporter told CPJ there are frequent police roundups that end in deportation. Others said Eritrean security agents actively and openly seek out refugees for repatriation. Consequently, many live in hiding.
The situation for Eritrean refugees is not very different from that of the 68 journalists who, by CPJ’s count, have fled Iran since the 2009 contested presidential election. Iranians in Turkey and Iraq, and even those in France and the United States, expressed similar fears that the long arm of the Iranian security apparatus could reach them in exile, as Sheryl Mendez and I recently reported for Attacks on the Press in 2011.
Meanwhile, the more than 20 Cuban journalists released from prisons and sent to Spain following July 2010 talks between the government of President Raúl Castro and the Catholic Church live in a different kind of fear. They are not scared of being sent back to Cuba. Instead, they dread economic straits and bureaucratic barriers in Spain, as Borja Bergareche reported in 2011. Last month, Mijaíl Bárzaga Lugo told CPJ that his family was out of food, and had no money to pay rent or bills. The anguish of forced exile, and long years of repression and incarceration in Cuba, are said to have been what recently drove Cuban journalist Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández to suicide.