Exile journalists map - fleeing to Europe and North America

For the first time, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing a map showing the migratory flows of journalists who are forced to flee their country for safety reasons, and the countries that host exile media. Most of the countries that provide refuge to threatened or persecuted journalists are located in Europe or North America.

All over the world, journalists who are threatened or endangered in connection with their work are forced to flee abroad in search of refuge. Based on data provided by RSF’s Assistance Desk and information gathered during the past five years by RSF’s bureaux, the exile journalists map shows that this is a global phenomenon. Each continent produces its flow of journalists fleeing abroad, who mainly find refuge in Europe and North America.

The map reflects not only armed conflicts In Europe (Ukraine), Africa (Sudan) and the Middle East (Syria) but also recent tension and political turmoil that has fuelled persecution of critical and/or independent journalists.

“The map shows the scale of the movements of journalists forced to seek refuge abroad. Since its creation, our Assistance Desk has never been so busy. Our efforts have two complementary goals: on the one hand, opposing the persecution that drives journalists to flee; and on the other, assisting the journalists and media who have no choice but to seek refuge abroad. We must ensure the survival of exile media, which means involving all actors, including democratic governments. RSF provides various services for exile journalists and helped to create the JX Fund. We call for an international mobilisation in support of exile media, whose impact reaches beyond the borders of their country of origin at a time of globalised challenges to the provision of news and information and propaganda wars.

Christophe Deloire
RSF secretary-general

Several hundred Russian journalists have fled their country, where covering subjects directly or indirectly related to the war in Ukraine can lead to imprisonment. Many of them have found refuge in neighbouring Georgia, neighbouring Baltic countries or within the European Union, especially in Poland, Germany and France. Despite their dispersion, most of their media outlets try to keep operating at a distance. They include the journalists of the news website Bumaga, who continue to cover the Saint Petersburg region from seven different countries.

Hundreds of journalists have been forced to flee Afghanistan, which fell under the Taliban yoke again in August 2021, and Myanmar, where the military retook power in a coup in February 2021. And at least 100 journalists have fled Beijing’s relentless crackdown during the past three years in Hong Kong, where adoption of the national security law has forced independent newspapers such as Apple Daily to stop operating. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, is one of about ten journalists now in prison. This sends a message to those independent journalists who, for the most part, have fled to the nearby island of Taiwan, to Britain (the former colonial power), or to North America.

An often chaotic exile 

Some journalists manage to cross oceans and find refuge directly in the United States or Canada, countries whose language they speak or where they already have relatives. But, for most journalists fleeing abroad, exile is a two-stage process.

In the rush to leave, most journalists seek an initial refuge in neighbouring countries, where a long-term stay is not an option because of the political or economic situation there. Dozens of Afghan journalists and their families have fled to neighbouring Pakistan, seeing it as just a transit country. The respite provided by Pakistan, which is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, is short-lived. Afghan journalists have not only quickly found themselves in an illegal situation in Pakistan, deprived of a visa and residence permit, and grappling with administrative delays at the consulates of other countries, but they also lack the right to work and are therefore no longer able to meet the needs of their families, whose situation becomes extremely precarious.

Similarly, dozens of Syrian journalists were initially able to flee to Turkey (ranked 165th in the Press Freedom Index) when it opened its borders on humanitarian grounds. But they were often confined to refugee camps, and now they live under the threat of being deported back to Syria where, as journalists, they risk ending up in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons or even summary execution. Thailand, where many journalists from neighbouring Myanmar seek refuge, often threatens to send some of them back to their country although it has become the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists, second only to China.

Hybrid countries

The same country can serve as a refuge for some and pose a danger to others. Egypt (ranked 166th in the World Press Freedom Index) is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists and is currently holding 20 arbitrarily. At the same time, it has taken in at least 40 Sudanese journalists since two military factions began fighting each other in Sudan in mid-April.

A country of refuge can switch and become a dangerous one. This is the case with Ukraine. Belarusian journalists who found a refuge there during President Lukashenko’s crackdown in Belarus, after his disputed reelection in August 2020, suddenly found themselves, two years later, in a country at war. Many Burundian journalists fleeing persecution went initially to Rwanda but were forced to turn to Europe and the United States by the increasing oppressive climate in their first country of refuge. Wherever they go, journalists are still potentially in danger if they continue their work, as seen with Florianne Irangabiye, a Burundian journalist who hosted a critical radio show from Rwanda and received a ten-year jail sentence when she made a brief trip back to Burundi to see her family.

Exile does not mean an end to threats and danger. Many Iranian refugee journalists – especially in the United Kingdom, where several prominent Iranian exile media are based – were subjected to renewed harassment and threats during Iran’s crackdown on the huge protests that followed Kurdish student Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody in September 2022. So much so that Iran International TV had to temporarily close its London offices.

The decision to flee abroad is not always an individual one. As a result of the increasing authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua, all of the journalists working for the independent daily La Prensa fled the country within the space of a few weeks in July 2022.  Most of them went to neighbouring Costa Rica, where several exile media are now based. Spain and the United States are also countries of refuge for hundreds of Venezuelan, Cuban and Central American journalists.

Assisting exile journalists is one of RSF’s priorities. RSF participated in the launch of JX Fund, which helps journalists to resume working immediately after fleeing war and conflict zones. Of the 363 financial grants that RSF’s Assistance Desk has made to journalists from 42 countries since the start of 2022, 70% have gone to exile journalists. And RSF has written more than 400 letters to support visa or asylum applications by journalists who have fled their country.

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