Journalists in Exile 2010: An exodus from Iran, East Africa
A Special Report by María Salazar-Ferro,
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
At least 29 Iranian editors, reporters, and
photographers fled into exile over the past 12 months, the highest annual tally
from a single country in a decade, a new survey by the Committee to Protect
Journalists has found. CPJ also found a significant spike in the number of
journalists fleeing violence and harassment in East Africa.
cartoon by Nikahang
"My photos were seen as political criticism of
clerics in Iran," said photographer Mohammad Kheirkhan, who, like other Iranian
journalists, went into exile after being harassed and interrogated by
authorities for coverage of the unrest that followed the disputed 2009
presidential election. "The punishment for criticizing clerics is prison,
torture, and even execution."
Worldwide, at least 85 journalists fled their home
countries over the past 12 months, CPJ found in its annual survey, which marks
World Refugee Day, June 20, and highlights the plight of journalists who are
forced to leave their homes in the face of attacks, threats, or the possibility
of imprisonment. This year's total, which counts journalists who went into exile
from June 1, 2009 to May 31, 2010, is double the number recorded in the prior
12-month period. The tally is comparable to the decade's previous high of 82,
which CPJ recorded in 2007-08.
Data on exiled journalists closely track other press
freedom indicators such as deadly violence and the threat of imprisonment. The
countries with the highest exile rates over the past 12 months-which include
Ethiopia and Somalia, along with Iran-have long records of press repression.
"It wasn't a single incident that pushed me to leave
Ethiopia-it was numerous incidents over the course of several months," said
Mesfin Negash, who served as editor of the independent Ethiopian newspaper Addis
Neger. Government security forces, intent on silencing criticism before the
May 2010 elections, intimidated staff members and threatened criminal charges.
Finally, Negash and several other staffers closed Addis Neger and fled
the country. "We had hoped the harassment and intimidation would stop, but it
never did because [the government] thought that if we stayed in Ethiopia we
could influence the outcome of the elections."
Hundreds of journalists in exile over the past
Since 2001, when CPJ began compiling detailed
records on journalists in exile, more than 500 journalists have fled their
homes. Illustrating the extraordinary dangers facing these journalists at home,
454 remain in exile today.
African journalists have been at particular risk
throughout the past decade, but the exile rate tripled over the past 12 months.
At least 42 African journalists, most of them from Somalia and Ethiopia, fled
their homes in the past year. A majority sought refuge in Kenya and Uganda,
where they hoped to resettle to a third country through the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees. The process can be lengthy as well as financially and
emotionally grueling. "It is difficult to even plan when you are in this
situation of exile and relocation," said Negash, who has relocated elsewhere on
the continent. "It is tormenting because everything is out of your control."
Journalists find themselves in a legal limbo, unable
to work and often the targets of ethnically motivated violence and police
harassment. They live in a constant state of anxiety about the family members
who are still back home. Negash's exile has been devastating for his wife and
mother, who depended on him but were forced to stay in Ethiopia when he fled.
"It has been so difficult that sometimes I can't even call them because they are
so emotionally disturbed," said Negash, who continues to help his family
financially, sending whatever amounts he can spare from the small aid he
receives from international organizations.
At least half of the Iranian journalists who fled
this year are in a similarly precarious situation in Turkey. Several of those
journalists told CPJ they have been approached by individuals they believe are
working for the Iranian regime who have warned them that colleagues and
relatives back home will suffer consequences if they discuss Iranian politics
Kheirkhan's photographs of street protests were considered political
criticism of Iranian clerics. (Mohammad Kheirkhan)
Kheirkhan, 24, whose photographs of the Iranian
political unrest for United Press International were seen worldwide, had to
travel through Afghanistan and Italy before resettling in the United States. "I
wasn't happy to be far away from my country, my family, and my friends," he said
when asked about his decision to petition for asylum. "But safety is the first
thing that everybody must think about in his or her life." He said he hopes to
continue working as a journalist in California, where he now resides.
In exile, journalists face obstacles in
That will not be an easy path. CPJ research shows
that less than a third of exiled journalists are able to continue to work in
their profession. Throughout the world, exiled journalists face lengthy
bureaucratic procedures as they establish their new legal status, along with
significant language and cultural adjustments as they rebuild their lives. Many
accomplished journalists are forced to take whatever employment opportunities
Luis Horacio Nájera, a Mexican reporter with almost
two decades of experience covering criminal gangs and political corruption, has
been working as a janitor in Vancouver, Canada, since leaving his home country
in 2008 in the face of death threats.
"It has been really hard to work here because no one
recognizes my experience and I don't speak English well," he told CPJ in an
interview conducted in Spanish. "There aren't many opportunities, and you have
to stand in a very long line of other refugees, so you end up doing things that
you never thought you would have to-cleaning houses and washing
bathrooms-because there is nothing else that you can do."
Nájera and his family filed for asylum in 2009, and
are awaiting an answer from Canadian authorities. If approved, Nájera said, he
will study English, enroll in school, and find other work, although he does not
think he will go back to journalism. Neither does he plan to return to Mexico.
"I am very hurt with my country," he told CPJ. "I did all that I could to help
Mexico through my work as a journalist, and Mexico has not responded-it has not
even been able to keep me and my family safe."
Nearly 50 percent of journalists who have been
forced into exile since 2001 have done so after being attacked or threatened
with violence. Another 30 percent fled because of the possibility of
imprisonment, while 20 percent left following prolonged harassment, CPJ research
Violence was the primary reason for an exodus of
Iraqi journalists earlier in the past decade. As the death toll in Iraq has
dropped to its lowest point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, so too have the
numbers of journalists seeking exile. CPJ documented just one Iraqi exile case
in the past 12 months. Until this past year, Iraq had seen the largest
single-year exodus of journalists.
CPJ's survey counts only those journalists who fled
due to work-related persecution, who remained in exile for at least three
months, and whose current whereabouts and activities are known. It does not
include the many journalists and media workers who left their countries for
professional or financial opportunities, those who left due to general violence,
or those who were targeted for activities other than journalism, such as
political activism. Other groups using different criteria cite higher numbers.
Read More on
CPJ's web site.
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