La Prensa publisher Juan Lorenzo Holmann, one of the more than 200 freed political prisoners from Nicaragua, speaks on a phone outside a hotel after arriving in the United States at Dulles International Airport near Washington, U.S., February 9, 2023. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

CPJ’s support to exiled journalists jumped 227% in 3 years, reflecting global press freedom crisis

Keep closely connected to your homeland and don’t despair: that is advice Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad said he would offer to Afghan journalists who fled after the August 2021 Taliban takeover.

Mohammad knows firsthand the challenges of exile. In 2019, he made a new life in Spain after fleeing the Syrian civil war with CPJ’s help, and has continued to cover his country from abroad while learning Spanish. “Being forced to leave your country is one of the most difficult moments in life,” he told CPJ in a 2021 interview. But journalists “have a major role to play” in helping the world understand the countries they left.

Mohammad’s story is hardly unique. In 2020, CPJ issued assistance to journalists in exile 63 times, in the form of immigration support letters and grants for necessities like rent and food. Throughout 2022, CPJ provided help 206 times, an increase of 227% over the three-year period.

The spike in support underscores the growing number of journalists fleeing their home countries, and the growing need for assistance. This year to date, CPJ has provided help 71 times to exiled journalists. Journalists from Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua make up the largest shares. (This data solely reflects direct assistance to journalists from CPJ’s Emergencies team, and not other ways the organization supports those in exile through advocacy and other means.)

The total number of journalists in exile is unknown. Some have crossed a border to a neighboring country, and others have traveled thousands of miles. Over the past three years, CPJ has helped journalists who have relocated from Cuba to Spain, from Ethiopia to Kenya, from Myanmar to Thailand, and from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Brazil, France, and Canada. Each journey reflect’s an individual’s life upended; considered together, they show how press freedom’s global decline contributes to the increasing number of people forced to flee their home countries. As the number of exiled journalists grows, viable pathways to safety remain difficult for many to access.

This map is a snapshot of journeys into exile taken by some journalists CPJ helped between 2021 and 2023.

Journalists have unique reasons for leaving their countries. Members of the press hold people in power to account. They have public profiles. When subjects don’t want to be covered, they can make life difficult and dangerous for journalists and their families; politics and corruption are particularly risky beats. Some journalists flee to escape imprisonment or the threat of physical attacks; others worry that they will be killed if they stay.  

To mark World Refugee Day on June 20, here are three takeaways from CPJ’s work with exiled journalists.

1. Journalists are being driven out of countries where press freedom is under attack

While historically people have been driven into exile by wars, many of the journalists CPJ has supported in recent years were forced out not due to armed conflict but because of specific attacks on the press. Prior to the Taliban takeover, CPJ received few exile support requests from Afghan journalists. But since 2021, Afghan journalists fleeing the Taliban’s repressive regime, under which journalists have been beaten and jailed, have represented the largest share of exiled journalists receiving support each year.

CPJ has also helped journalists from Nicaragua, where the government of President Daniel Ortega has engaged in systematic attacks on freedom of expression, forcing out journalists and media workers as part of a mass deportation of political prisoners to the United States in February. Iranian journalists make up another large share of CPJ exile support; the country was listed as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in CPJ’s 2022 prison census, amid a crackdown on anti-state protests.

CPJ has also supported journalists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Venezuela, all places that have seen serious erosions in press freedom.

CPJ has also provided aid to journalists fleeing conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. More than 100 journalists escaped the Syrian civil war with CPJ’s help between 2011 and 2015.

2. Journalists who go into exile need more reliable pathways to safety

Journalists forced to make the stark choice between continuing to report in dangerous environments or leaving home must often decide quickly. In Afghanistan, journalists were sometimes told they had hours to gather precious belongings, pack their bags, and leave their country behind. When a journalist does make the leap, few mechanisms exist to support them.

Members of the press often wait months or even years for visas; in some cases, they are forced to remain in the very country where their lives are imperiled. Other times, journalists move abroad but get stuck in bureaucratic limbo, unable to leave, see their families, or work. Sometimes, journalists who have faced charges or have a criminal history in their home country due to their work face difficulties at international borders, or when applying for asylum or visas.

Emergency visas would allow journalists to quickly and safely relocate, and CPJ has long advocated for their wider availability. In May, the Estonian government heeded the call, announcing a program that will provide 35 emergency visas to journalists each year. A number of other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Germany have also taken concrete steps to providing safe refuge for journalists. More countries should follow suit.

Until they do, options for help are limited. The vast majority of journalists who go into exile are often left to navigate and engage with complex immigration bureaucracies on their own, a daunting and arduous process. CPJ has written hundreds of letters of support for journalists to include in immigration applications; these letters typically explain why it’s too dangerous for a journalist to return to their home country. CPJ provided dozens of these letters for Afghan journalists alone over the past two years, underscoring the severe need for assistance in navigating immigration bureaucracies.

3. Exile is a press freedom issue

When a journalist is forced into exile, journalism suffers. Many journalists cease reporting when they relocate, and readers, viewers, and listeners are robbed of the information they need to make informed decisions about their lives.

Challenges persist even for those who find a way to keep reporting from exile. Setting up newsrooms and re-establishing oneself as a journalist in another country can be a costly, confusing process. The very threats and attacks that caused journalists to flee may also follow them into their new country, and the overlapping stressors put a strain on journalists’ mental health. Iranian journalists in particular remain vulnerable in exile. In some cases, like that of exiled Bangladeshi journalist Kanak Sarwar, authorities target a journalist’s family members after the individual has left the country.  

Supporting journalists in exile — whether through direct financial assistance, advocating for safe refuge, or shining a light on their stories to help the public to understand why they needed to flee — remains a crucial focus of CPJ’s work. Exile should be a last resort. But it’s still a chance for freedom, which journalists need to survive and tell the stories that shape our world.

“Maybe you expect I’d complain about exile, but I’m satisfied here because this is my choice,” Iranian blogger and editor Arash Sigarchi, who fled to the United States in 2008, told CPJ that year. “I had two options: one, to stay in Iran and be in prison under torture, and two, to be in exile.”

Data and map by CPJ Emergencies Administrator Anastasia Tkach