Faced with growth of exiled journalists, press advocates in Latin America call for their protection

At least 300 journalists have fled Nicaragua, Ecuador and Guatemala and gone into exile in recent years, according to various press freedom organizations. Numbers from Venezuela are unavailable, but that country has experienced a mass exodus of millions, including journalists.

This trend is replicated worldwide, according to Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. In her recent report “Journalists in exile,” Khan describes the different physical, digital and legal threats that journalists face, as well as the response given by receiving States and civil society organizations.

And although the exile of journalists is not a new phenomenon, according to Khan's report, the momentum it has gained in recent years is worrying, “due to the intense pressure that public interest media suffer in many countries.”

“The free, independent, diverse and pluralistic press plays a vital role in supporting democracy, informing the public and holding those in power to account. The media that make up this press are absent or seriously limited in more than a third of the countries in the world, where more than two thirds of the world's population live," the report states, emphasizing the growth of authoritarian regimes in the world.

Although armed conflicts have been the main cause of the exile of journalists, currently the “dominant factor” is political repression. According to the report, many journalists flee due to fear of being arrested and imprisoned due to false accusations and the desire to be able to continue their investigations. And it’s not only journalists who flee, in some cases, entire media outlets leave a country in search of protection.

Since 2018, at least 260 Nicaraguan journalists have gone into exile, according to figures from the observatory of Independent Journalists and Communications of Nicaragua (PCIN, for its acronym in Spanish). Since 2023, the Ecuadoran organization Fundamedios has recorded the exile of 16 journalists from that country. The Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG) estimates that there are currently 25 journalists in exile. In Venezuela, although there are no specific records of journalists, organizations such as the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) of Venezuela are working to find this data: especially because according to UNHCR figures, at least 7.7 million Venezuelans have fled the country.

The increase in journalists going into exile worldwide has been noted by various organizations. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called attention to this situation due to the “record numbers” of journalists in exile. Within the framework of World Refugee Day, which took place on June 20, CPJ recognized the work and difficulties that refugees face and said that “exiled journalists or soon-to-be exiled journalists now make up more than half of the people CPJ assists.”

CPJ said that between January and June 2024, it provided financial support to 158 journalists, 64% of them (about 101) had fled or were in the process of fleeing countries such as Nicaragua, Myanmar and Sudan.

“Overall, CPJ’s exile support to members of the press grew by 227% between 2020 and 2023,” the organization said.

Threats, lack of protection and economic precariousness

Luz Mely Reyes, co-founder of Venezuelan media outlet Efecto Cocuyo, is currently an ICFJ Knight Fellow focused on the issue of exiled journalists. Her work at ICFJ focuses on creating resources, connections and opportunities for these journalists on the American continent.

However, her interest in the subject dates back years. As she told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), much of this interest has to do with the fact that, despite the Venezuelan diaspora, it is not easy to find records of exiled journalists.

In this search for information, she came across the situation experienced by journalists from different Latin American countries, and through personal interviews and group conversations she has obtained qualitative data about journalists in exile.

“What we have seen is that since there is no classification [of exile], nor are there special protection measures, when journalists are expelled from their country and their workplace they are practically left unassisted,” Reyes said.

The classification that Reyes refers to has to do with the exact definition of who is considered a journalist in exile and what type of legal protection they could receive. For this reason, and based on the information collected, one of the aspects that must be worked on is the development of a type of regional protection mechanism due to the threats they continue to face, Reyes said.

Indeed, Khan's report details how journalists in exile globally continue to be exposed to what they classify as “transnational repression.” According to the report, this repression can be reflected in physical violence (such as threats, abductions and even murders), digital threats, legal threats and indirect repression.

According to Víctor Manuel Pérez, from the PCIN executive commission, this type of violence is seen by Nicaraguan journalists exiled in Costa Rica. He alleges that organized crime is targeting them.

“We know that Daniel Ortega's regime, due to the proximity we have with Nicaragua, has tentacles in this country and we know that we are victims of surveillance persecution or in some cases of threats,” Pérez told LJR.

Despite this situation, Pérez said that, in contrast to the previous government, the new government of Costa Rica has been quite “hermetic” in speaking with civil society organizations. “With this government, the possibilities of being able to talk or pass on information about some cases that we have documented were closed,” he said.

Digital threats have also been particularly effective because journalists in exile continue their work precisely through social networks and other platforms. This “dependency” on digital tools makes these journalists “especially vulnerable to cyber attacks from the governments of their countries of origin or their representatives and, sometimes, from the authorities of the countries where they have been exiled,” the UN report says.

According to Pérez, at least 35 digital platforms run from exile have been born since 2018, which “have assumed the role of continuing to defend freedom of the press even with the difficulties that being outside of Nicaragua represents,” he assured.

“I can say that the majority of us who have gone into exile have continued to practice the profession,” Pérez said, based on the mapping of media in and outside Nicaragua that PCIN did in March 2023. According to this mapping, 36% of Nicaraguan journalists have stopped practicing their profession.

And it is precisely because of the role that journalists in exile also play that receiving States are being asked by press advocates to establish protocols that facilitate the legalization of the situation of those fleeing their countries.

“If there were no media in exile, there would be information black holes and zones of silence on issues that concern communities on a national and global scale,” Khan's report states, highlighting that these media are precisely the only sources of independent information.

Reyes also highlights this argument, explaining that these professionals are expelled from “authoritarian countries that seek precisely the dismantling, as has been the case in Venezuela, of the independent media system or the free media system and that directly affects democracy.”

It is not about offering privileges, but about facilitating processes.

“Journalists are not above the law, but by virtue of their role and the public interest in the work of revealing information, they have the right to specific legal protection, whether in their country of origin or in exile,” the report says. “The international community has to invest much more in the protection and support of journalists and journalism in exile.”

Pérez, for example, highlights how of the more than 300 people who were exiled from Nicaragua at the beginning of 2023, at least 22 press professionals were included.

“Half of these journalists are stateless because they have not been able to finish the processes with any of the nationalities they were [offered],” she said.

Added to this is the impossibility of legalizing their situation in the receiving country since many times journalists flee with just “a simple backpack” and possibly “without any documentation to support that we are being persecuted,” Pérez added.

This lack of legal stability worsens the problem of economic precariousness for those who want to continue practicing journalism while in exile. Without the required documentation, it is not possible to get a formal job.

“The journalist is left without the possibility of pursuing his career even in the country that welcomes him and cannot do so for the country from which he has been expelled,” Reyes said.

“Indeed, sustainability is one of the fundamental challenges,” José J. Nieves, an exiled Cuban journalist who is also an ICFJ Knight Fellow, told LJR. During his year at ICFJ, he will work on a manual for media in exile to achieve sustainability.

“It is the challenge I focus on, it is my great concern. What keeps me awake at night is 'how do I make my organization sustainable,'" he said.

Based on his research, people make a lot of effort, “no one sits idly by.” Although the “main source of income for media in exile” comes in the form of grants, this is not enough.

Among the different efforts and business models, Nieves has identified stores where products with the media's brand are sold, others offer consulting in communication, marketing and even political analysis. Journalism entrepreneurs even start online schools and courses, events, as well as develop technology.

“The expertise we have in our newsrooms becomes ways to generate income,” Nieves said.

Nieves, however, highlights that more support is needed, especially because sustainability “is not exclusively economic income.”

Using a definition from Lion Publishers, he highlighted sustainability as the intersection between financial health, operational resilience and journalistic impact.

More support from States and more attention to the problem

For Nieves, support from the States plays an important role in achieving this sustainability, especially in democratic countries. For example, he highlights the need to streamline processes to legalize the situation of journalists and establish mechanisms that allow diplomatic channels to be used in cases, for example, of emergency exits.

Reyes and Pérez consider it progress that the problem is on the international agenda.

Reyes especially highlighted not only Khan's recent report for the UN period of sessions, but also the consultation made on the topic by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

For the journalist, it is vital to have data on the situation, at least on the continent.

“We see this in authoritarian countries. 'Oh well, it's happening in authoritarian countries', and what about in countries that are not authoritarian, which are countries with weak, but democratic, democracies. The case of Guatemala, now El Salvador, the case of Honduras, and Mexico. It is a fairly complex issue,” Reyes said.

While collecting information, Reyes has found that political violence is undoubtedly one of the factors of displacement. However, organized crime violence is also an important factor in Latin America that is not usually seen as clearly compared to countries like Ukraine, Afghanistan or Syria.

The case of Ecuador, for example, stands out the most in recent years. Or that of Mexico, with scores of journalists internally displaced due to this problem, Reyes added.

The UN report ends with conclusions and recommendations, especially aimed at receiving countries, which include, among other solutions, the problem of legalization and security for those who flee. There are also recommendations for civil society to offer more opportunities and help for those working from exile, and even for digital platforms to prevent authoritarian governments from continuing to have power over those who have fled their countries.

Reyes highlights two topics that usually do not receive attention when talking about the exile of journalists: the impact on their mental health and the language gap. Mental health, according to Reyes, continues to be a taboo topic and treatment in journalists is left aside. On the other hand, her work with Latin American journalists in the United States has shown her the additional obstacles for those who do not speak the language of the receiving country.

“It is important that this UN report has been prepared because it puts the issue on the table, it allows the issue to begin to be discussed in the different regions […] and to identify the areas where contributions and aid can be more effective for the journalists who are being expelled,” Reyes said. “This is the last step or like a staircase. It's a harsh image, but it's like when they throw you off a cliff, you hold on and hold on, and the last blow they give you is to take you out of your country, which is an extremely painful process."

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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