East African journalists remain dedicated to free expression despite risks

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Ugandan police arrest a journalist outside the Daily Monitor offices Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Uganda is considered to be a safe haven for many journalists in exile but reporters continue to face threats. PHOTO: AP/Rebecca Vassie
By Michaela Cavanagh For media professionals in East Africa, the line between journalist and political activist is razor-thin. In countries like Eritrea, the very act of independent news gathering is not only radically subversive, but also cause for arrest and criminal charges. For many, standing up for press freedom and against repressive regimes comes at a high price — the price of being forced to flee one’s home country. In East Africa, journalists and media professionals often fear for their lives; regularly facing harassment, death threats, arbitrary arrest, detention and kidnapping simply for practicing journalism. However, even after they are forced to flee — leaving their families, their jobs, and their homes — these journalists remain at risk as refugees in their new countries, often being followed and threatened by government security forces. According to the 2013 Doha Centre for Media Freedom report, “No home from home: The plight of East African exiled journalists,” in the period of 2009-2013, 70 journalists left Somalia, 45 fled Ethiopia, 30 escaped Eritrea, five ran away from Sudan and two left South Sudan. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that more than 30 journalists fled Ethiopia in 2014, twice the number of exiles they had reported for 2012 and 2013. Nicole Schilit, of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program, says that when a journalist in East Africa leaves his or her home country, “it’s not just that they’re in exile and they left their family — they left their livelihood.” In the case of the Ethiopian journalists, over the past year, “the government filed criminal charges against pretty much all the independent outlets,” says Schilit. “So the journalists all fled because they were scared of being arrested, and three of them were actually charged after they had fled and had been sentenced to over three years in prison.” “They had careers and jobs and were respected, they had reputations, and so they went from being this person with an entire life to just being a refugee,” she says. “They come to this new country and they can’t work, and many of them who are concerned about their security will not leave their house, so they’ll stay inside almost all day except for when they have to go get food,” Schilit continues. “It just takes a toll on them, on top of missing their families and having fled in extraordinary circumstances.” For journalists who work for freedom of expression in countries with oppressive regimes, circumstances can transform from livable to dire overnight. Vincent Guermond is the Sub-Saharan Africa researcher for the Rory Peck Trust, an organization that provides assistance to exiled freelance journalists. He says that very often, when a journalist decides to flee their home country, it’s a last-minute decision. “They don’t have much time to prepare anything,” says Guermond. “They just leave. And when they arrive in either Uganda [or] Kenya, lots of these journalists, they don’t know anything about the country, or how it works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or how to find accommodation.” When journalists arrive in Kenya or Uganda — the two relative safe havens for refugees in East Africa — their first priorities are very practical. “You are living in a new country, in a new city without having any basic knowledge of the city, and you have to find your way around and you have to find help with everything, from registering as a refugee and as an asylum seeker to finding a place to stay,” Guermond says. Exiled journalists will often live together in small, ill-equipped, cramped apartments, sometimes with up to seven people in a two-bedroom apartment. Because the refugee status of exiled journalists in East Africa does not allow them to work in the formal economy, and because they are so fearful that they will be tracked down by their government security agencies, exiled journalists are left without a way to make a viable living. “The first concern we usually hear from people is just a roof over their head and food to eat,” says Schilit. “And then for many journalists, especially in East Africa, security is a huge concern.” Guermond tells the story of a journalist he has worked with who fled his home in Rwanda only to have to flee once more because he feared for his security. “The journalist first fled to Uganda, and he was in one of the camps in Uganda when he recognized some intelligence officers that he was actually in trouble with back in Rwanda a few years ago,” says Guermond. “So he was able to recognize their faces and they were speaking the same language as him [Kinyarwanda]. He felt completely insecure so he decided to move from Uganda to Kenya. But even in Kenya he is still feeling very insecure,” Guermond continues. “I think the last email he sent me said something like, ‘Being in Uganda is like being in Kigali. I’m not secure, and every time I hear someone speaking Kinyarwanda, I’m very scared, so I just don’t leave my house because I’m scared to just meet any kind of people.’” Often isolated from their communities, in some cases exiled journalists will practice journalism online, maintaining their connection to their home countries from afar despite the continued security risks. “Because they can’t practice journalism anymore — they can’t work for a newspaper, or if they were a cameraman or a photojournalist, they can’t practice their job anymore, so lots of them will actually write for exiled online media,” says Guermond. Schilit says the exiled journalists she’s worked with have spoken as if it’s their duty to continue practicing journalism, even if that means endangering their lives. “They really believe that it’s their responsibility to report what is happening because if they don’t, then the governments win, and the citizens do not know what’s happening. You can’t have a democracy without a free press… and the fact that they’re being targeted almost makes that case even stronger.”
Michaela Cavanagh is a communications and documentation officer for a human rights NGO in the Dominican Republic.

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