In most developed countries, freedom of the press is something often taken for granted in today’s era of internet media and the twenty-four hour news cycle.
However, outside of the comfort and protection of countries that grant freedom of the press, investigating and reporting the truth is not only difficult, but often dangerous as well. In a number of countries, journalists are frequently harassed, assaulted, imprisoned, or killed. For journalists hoping to escape that fate, often the only option is to flee their homes and go into exile abroad.
The exile of journalists occurs throughout the world, although Africa and the Middle East are the regions in which the problem is most prevalent. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the 404 journalists forced into exile since 2009, 165 and 147 came from these two regions respectively, and Iran, Syria, and Somalia were the three biggest problem countries. Journalists in these countries frequently find themselves targets of persecution at the hands of the government and other entities after putting out politically sensitive stories on matters that include corruption, violence, and human rights violations. These journalists are intimidated and coerced with threats of violence and imprisonment for reporting stories that may threaten the political status quo in their country. The decision to flee their countries is undoubtedly a difficult one for journalists to make, but it also beats the grim fate of imprisonment or death met by so many other journalists in similar situations. In 2013, 70 journalists were killed and 211 were imprisoned worldwide.
For many journalists forced to flee their homes, the next steps are frequently difficult and dangerous. The only available option for most is to seek initial refuge in a neighboring country in hopes that they can eventually resettle in a safer third country. Often this journey can only be made by paying a smuggler or by making the dangerous border crossings alone. Once they have successfully escaped their home country, refugee journalists begin an arduous process of applying for resettlement and asylum elsewhere, through the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other agencies. This process may take months or years if it is even completed at all.
Life in exile brings its own set of hardships and uncertainty to refugee journalists. As many journalists await resettlement, they are often forced to wait in countries that are no safer for journalists than the ones they fled in the first place. As such, only 21 percent of exiled journalists are able to continue working in their profession; in many cases, refugee journalists are recognized and met with further persecution and stigmatization. Even those journalists fortunate enough to find refuge in the safety of countries like the United States, France, and Sweden face their own unique challenges as they try to settle into a new life in an unfamiliar place.
Organizations like the UNHCR and the Committee to Protect Journalists do their best to support and assist exiled journalists in finding asylum and starting new lives abroad. Nonetheless, the exile of journalists remains a persistent problem, and for the journalists living as refugees around the world, the future remains uncertain and in many cases frightening. Refugee journalists serve as a reminder of the importance of the free press and the sacrifices being made by journalists in countries that do not grant that freedom, in the pursuit of bringing to light critical stories at a time when their people need them most.