Journalists in Distress: Stalled in Exile

An asylum seeker prepares a meal at a refugee holding centre in the town of Bad Belzig. PHOTO: Reuters.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

By: Amy Johnson

NOTE: Names in this piece have been changed to protect the identities and privacy of the individuals.

For a journalist working in a country where press freedom bends to the will of the current regime, a single political article or satirical broadcast can land you on a government target list. In certain cases, state-sanctioned intimidation tactics and organized violence ensue, and imperiled journalists are forced to embark on the long, complicated process of seeking temporary or long-term exile abroad.

Even when the threat of continued surveillance and aggression can be evaded by fleeing, the path to refuge is rarely as simple as obtaining the financial support to leave. The process is often complicated and stalled by such obstacles as long wait-times for asylum applications, foreign employment limitations, and security concerns, so journalists-in-flight can become stuck in the limbo of the extended stay in an interim country where they lack protection and/or the means to continue their passage.

CJFE – an organization with roots in helping journalists in distress to safety – is regrettably familiar with these refuge-on-hold cases. Through management of the Journalists in Distress (JID) fund, a humanitarian assistance program that provides support to journalists who have been threatened, injured or harmed as a result of their work in the media, and participation in a global network of groups who offer similar support, we regularly field requests for support from individuals whose flight into exile has been delayed in one way or another.

The majority of cases that pass through the greater JID Network exemplify how long and turbulent an endangered journalist’s course to freedom can be. The following summaries are taken from some of the most recent JID cases that CJFE has been involved in:

Faraz, a reporter from Iran, became a government target following his coverage of the controversial 2009 presidential elections. After repeated imprisonment, torture leading to a permanent neck injury, and the growing harassment of his family by state officials, Faraz escaped to Turkey last year only to discover the country’s rigid employment restrictions for refugees prevented him from supporting himself while waiting for his family. Without the financial means to relocate to a European country or the ability to legally bring his wife and daughter to Turkey, Faraz’s journey to freedom has stalled indefinitely.


Eritrean radio presenter and magazine writer, Samira, finds herself in a similar bind. A victim of workplace harassment and state-issued imprisonment threats for incorporating feminist viewpoints and criticism of the country’s totalitarian regime into her journalism, Samira fled to Uganda in early 2012, where she has awaited approval of her asylum application for over 15 months. Without official refugee status, she lacks the travel documents required to leave the region, as well as rights that could provide protection from Eritrea’s state surveillance agents. Renewing her asylum application for a fourth time, Samira does not anticipate an expedited approval any time soon.


Afghan satirist and television broadcaster, Aarif, narrowly managed to escape his country after being shot repeatedly by unidentified assailants in a suspected response to his commentary on the murder of Afghan refugees. Aarif, who travelled to India for emergency surgery and was recently joined by his wife and child, is concerned for the family’s safety in India due to their current proximity to the Indian/Pakistani border. As an unemployed refugee, however, he cannot afford immediate relocation to Tajikistan where his sister lives. This final step towards security has been delayed by the process of applying for additional support.

These procedural stalls on the road to exile are troubling for many reasons. Of course, the prevalence of such systemic shortcomings in many safe haven countries suggests the serious need for immigration policy reform. But before changes in the system can be made, they compromise not only the fundamental democratic freedoms CJFE works to defend, but also the organization’s capacity to provide effective help.

CJFE has a limited budget for emergency assistance, so JID grants are restricted to transfers of less than $2,000CAD, and the organization does not fund the same individual or group more than twice within five years. Nevertheless, many of the journalists who apply for JID aid are involved in the exile process, and the bureaucratic holdups bring about the need for extended support. A single grant from CJFE can quickly be dwarfed by the length and complexity of the asylum process.

The holding patterns faced by asylum seekers become an increasingly important consideration in CJFE’s strategy for supporting journalists at risk; they not only illustrate the need for increased funding of the aid program so as to raise the capacity of the individual grants, but these obstructions to exile also confirm the continued importance of lobbying for the better protection of media workers and free expression rights of all.

CJFE would like to thank the CAW for its funding of the Journalists in Distress Program, in addition to our many members and supporters whose donations go towards this work. If you would like to make a donation you can contribute online or contact CJFE at [email protected]