On the eve of World Refugee Day, Reporters Without Borders is alerting United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to the need to provide refugee journalists with better protection and is publishing an updated version of its guide for journalists who are forced to flee into exile.
Around 80 journalists fled abroad in 2011 to escape the fate reserved for them by governments hostile to freedom of information. The exodus is continuing this year. Dozens of Syrian, Iranian, Somali and Eritrean journalists have had to flee their countries in the past six months.
Faced by the probability of imminent arrest, physical violence, harassment or even murder, these men and women have had to abandon family, friends and colleagues in a quest for greater security.
Because of a lack of funds or because they departed in haste, they often end up being stranded in neighbouring countries that are accessible to refugees but also to the agents of the governments they are fleeing. As a result, their safety is far from being assured in these countries of initial refuge.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres on 30 May alerting him to the situation of refugee journalists in countries such as Turkey, Uganda and Kenya. Today, we are releasing the letter and the recommendations it contains.
We call on UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to establish an alert mechanism with a designated referral officer within each of its local offices so that cases involving refugee journalists and human rights activists can be identified and handled more quickly because they are particularly exposed to danger.
We also urge the High Commissioner to ensure that refugee journalists and human rights activists get better access to appropriate individual protection, to the emergency resettlement process and to the UN’s mechanism for temporary evacuation to a safe third country.
Finally, Reporters Without Borders is convinced that UN member states have a duty to help protect journalists who are forced to flee into exile because of their work. It therefore urges Guterres to publicly acknowledge that the UN’s traditional protection procedure is not appropriate for refugee journalists and human rights activists, who continue to be in danger in countries of initial refuge, and to urge member states to take the necessary action.
The latest version of the Guide for journalists who flee into exile, which Reporters Without Borders first published in 2009, contains some 30 pages of advice for refugee journalists about UNHCR protection procedures and seeking asylum in Europe and North America. Journalists who have had to flee their country will find information, tips and contacts that will help to guide and assist them during the long and difficult process of starting a new life.
Copy of the letter sent by Reporters Without Borders to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres
Mr. António Guterres
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR
PO Box 2500
CH-1211 Geneva 2
Paris, 30 May 2012
Urgent: Situation of asylum-seeking journalists in transit countries
Dear High Commissioner,
Reporters Without Borders, the leading international NGO defending freedom of information, is extremely concerned about the situation of journalists who apply to UNHCR for protection in the first country they reach after fleeing their own country.
By providing information about the situation of their fellow citizens, by interviewing government opponents, and by drawing attention to human rights violations, corruption and misrule, journalists attract the hostility of regimes and influential groups that do not tolerate freely reported news and information.
Because of their work, journalists are exposed to serious reprisals. Many are forced to flee abroad to escape physical violence, threats, arrests and arbitrary jail sentences.
Journalists are easy to identify because they sign articles, appear on TV and speak on the radio. When they flee to a nearby country and register with UNHCR, they continue to be at the mercy of the regimes they are trying to escape because their names, faces and voices are known.
This was seen when Eritrean journalist Jamal Osman Hamad was arrested in Khartoum on 24 October 2011, less than a week after Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki visited his Sudanese counterpart, and 300 Eritrean citizens were deported to their country of origin without UNHCR being able to examine their cases.
Our concern increased when Rwandan journalist Charles Ingabire was gunned down in Kampala on 30 November 2011 in very unclear circumstances. Reporters Without Borders is convinced that an act of political revenge cannot be ruled out.
It is clear that the Rwandan, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Iranian governments, like Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and Latin America’s drug traffickers, have an ability to do harm that reaches well beyond their own borders.
It must however be recognized that, as things stand, there is no adequate mechanism for protecting asylum-seeking journalists (and other news providers), who are all, by the nature of their work, also human rights defenders. Reporters Without Borders would therefore to like propose that local UNHCR offices adopt the following dedicated procedures for the protection of journalists.
Reporters Without Borders asks UNHCR to establish an alert mechanism with a designated referral officer within each of its local offices so that cases of persons who are in particular danger can be identified and handled more quickly. As Reporters Without Borders is in regular contact with journalists who have decided to flee abroad to safeguard their safety and freedom, and as it systematically conducts an investigation whenever it is contacted by a journalist seeking its protection, it is in a position to act as guarantor of the identity and background of journalists who approach UNHCR protection officers.
Adequate safety measures must also be adopted for refugee journalists (and other human rights defenders) including a programme of urban shelters (away from the regular refugee camps), safehouses, and emergency alert and protection mechanisms. Reporters Without Borders has been helping refugee journalists for more than 20 years but, although we are in constant contact with them and give them advice and guidance, we do not have the human and financial resources to enable them to meet their daily needs, including their security needs.
It is vital that journalists should have greater access to the emergency resettlement process and to the UN’s mechanism for temporary evacuation to a safe third country. UNHCR should work to obtain greater participation in these programmes by countries that can offer safe refuge.
Reporters Without Borders also urges the United Nations to publicly acknowledge that its traditional protection procedure is not appropriate for threatened journalists and to ask member states to help to make up for the shortcomings. This would enable UNHCR to overcome the culpable inaction of certain western government that use the overall quota as an excuse for doing nothing, although more than 260 journalists have been killed in connection with their work in the past five years and 154 are currently detained.
Our organization very much hopes that you will come out in favour of specific and more personalized treatment of resettlement requests by journalists and human rights defenders who are threatened in transit countries. We also hope that our recommendations will help to bring about a more general overhaul of UNHCR procedures.
We stand ready to provide you with any additional information and to meet with you to discuss these recommendations further.