Journalists flee East African countries – region’s free expression deteriorates
Fifty-seven journalists fled their country in the past year, seven of them fled Somalia. Three other East and Horn African countries – Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda – also rank among the top 10. More than a quarter of those who fled their homes from June 2011 to May 2012 came from an East African nation, Committee to Protect Journalists reports.
Sunday, 24 June 2012, by HRH London, based on Committee to Protect Journalists and Article 19 information.
Somali journalists carry the body of Abdisalan Sheikh Hassan of Horn Cable TV who was killed in December 2011.According to CPJ analysis, during the period from June 2011 to May 2012 dozens of journalists fled Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda – mostly for Kenya and Uganda.
The majority of exiled journalists cited fear of violence as their reason for leaving; some fled after being attacked. Their fears are justified; in Somalia, for example, six journalists have been killed in 2012, and no journalist murders have been prosecuted since 1992.
Others fled threats of prison and judicial harassment, common in Ethiopia and Rwanda. While reasons for fleeing into exile vary, the results are universal: Exiled journalists are subject to fear, poverty and uncertainty, while conditions for free expression deteriorate in the countries they leave behind.
Crisis in Horn and East Africa
While the global number of journalists going into exile has decreased to 57 cases from 67 in the previous period, the proportion of East African exiles remains steady, CPJ study shows.
Kenya and Uganda are the two hubs for exiled East African journalists – Kenya hosts 52 exiles, Uganda 24, by CPJ’s count.
Twenty-year-old radio journalist Horriyo Abdulkadir, right, covered the Somali conflict, focusing on gender and humanitarian issues. On 14 September 2011, unknown assailants shot Horriyo five times as she was leaving work.
“The actual attack was not the most painful moment because it happened so fast”, she said. “It was the time afterward – I was terrified”. Days later, needing further medical attention and fearing more violence, Horriyo left for Nairobi.
Zerihun Tesfaye, a 29-year-old senior political reporter for the critical Ethiopian weekly Addis Neger, is among the 49 Ethiopian journalists forced into exile over the past five years.
He and almost all of the paper’s news staff left in December 2009, closing the publication. In July of that year, a new anti-terrorism law criminalised any reporting deemed to “encourage” or “provide moral support” to groups labeled terrorists. A government paper accused Addis Neger of making false “anti-state” allegations and having ties to banned opposition groups.
“When we heard the government was trying to charge our reporters and editors using the anti-terror proclamation, we decided to flee,” Zerihun said. In 2011, 11 independent journalists were charged under the law – six in absentia, because they are in exile.
In the neighboring Eritrea, Africa’s leading jailer of journalists, 28 remain behind bars. Ten were arrested during the 2001 crackdown. In December that year, Aaron Berhane and Semret Seyoum, staffers for the biweekly Setit, and a fixer were ambushed and shot at while trying to cross into Sudan.
“I thought it was the end of my life”, Aaron said. “But I preferred to die than be tortured and reveal my sources, so I ran”. Aaron made it into Sudan, then Kenya, and eventually went on to Canada. Semret and the fixer were detained. Semret, released a year later, fled to Sweden. No one has heard from the fixer since.
Rwandans Charles Kabonero, below, Richard Kayigamba, and Didas Gasana fled in 2009 to Kampala. At home, they had worked for the independent weekly Umuseso. The journalists say they were harassed from the time they launched the website The Newsline in the summer of 2010. Local police warned them that unidentified individuals carrying Kabonero’s photo had been arrested, and that as a precaution they should stop writing.
In August 2011, Kayigamba and Gasana found several men outside their home. One said in Kinyarwanda, “Those are the people we are seeking”. As they ran, one of the men managed to grab Kayigamba’s T-shirt, but he got away.
In December 2011, Rwandan reporter Charles Ingabire was murdered in Kampala. He had recently launched the Inyenyeri News, a critical website popular in Rwanda and Uganda. His death – still unsolved – intensified fears among exiled journalists in Kampala and Nairobi.
Hassan Ruvakuki, a reporter for local radio station Bonesha FM and French government-funded broadcaster Radio France Internationale, was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2012 on charges of "participating in acts of terrorism”, article 19 reports.
Ruvakuki was charged in November 2011 along with 13 others for his involvement in what the Burundian government called a terrorist attack that took place in September 2011 near the border with Tanzania.
Ruvakuki was accused of involvement in the attack in part because he had interviewed Pierre Claver Kabirigi, a former police officer who claimed to be the leader of a new rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Democracy-Abanyagihugu.
Journalists and human rights defenders in Burundi have been targeted in a wave of detentions in the past two years with the government severely restricting the work of independent media.
Difficult life of refugee journalists
Exiled journalists in Nairobi are more likely to be harassed by local police. The local officers routinely stop them and ask for bribes in exchange for not arresting them.
Even so, documentation is essential for journalists in exile, and is often hard to get. The process in Uganda can take up to three months. In Kenya, the process can last up to a year and cause much anxiety.
Finding work is also crucial for exiled journalists. In Nairobi, refugees need an official work permit, granted by the government, which is expensive and difficult to obtain. “Very few people are able to get them”, said a UNHCR protection officer in Nairobi. Instead, journalists said they often rely on grants from international organizations like CPJ to cover basic needs.
All of these challenges are intensified by a lack of information. Many journalists said they knew nothing about the refugee process or life in exile prior to fleeing. Journalists often lack information about refugee rights and the exact responsibilities of the UNHCR and host governments.
Region’s media landscape is devastated
The journalist refugee crisis of East Africa has now spanned more than a decade, taking a serious toll on the region’s press freedom. With 14 journalists forced out of Rwanda, 27 from Eritrea, 49 from Ethiopia, and a whopping 78 out of Somalia over the past five years, the region’s media landscape is devastated, exiled journalists told CPJ.
Somali reporter Abdikafar lamented that violence and exile had wiped out the country’s most professional outlets. His colleague Horriyo said that, with so many journalists gone, those left to report inside the country don’t have proper training. Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Rwandans told similar stories of desolation.
All the journalists in exile share an uncertain future. While Zerihun has no hope of returning to Ethiopia, Horriyo would go back to Somalia in a heartbeat if there was peace.
CPJ is releasing its annual survey of journalists in exile to mark World Refugee Day, June 20.
HRH London, based on Committee to Protect Journalists and Article 19 information.