By Sierra Juárez
A group of journalists who have been exiled because of their reporting called on lawmakers, news organizations, and nonprofits to help find ways to sustainably support reporters in similar situations.
The journalists gathered at the International Symposium of Online Journalism (ISOJ) in Austin on April 15 to discuss how they were forced out of their countries and how they continued their work from outside of their nations’ borders.
Before leaving their homes, the journalists reported from Russia, Nicaragua, Myanmar, and Guatemala. Each country is experiencing monumental restrictions and prohibitions on freedom of the press.
In Nicaragua, Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, panel member and the founder and editor of Confidencial, said there has been a barrage of assaults on journalism, including the murder and imprisonment of reporters, censorship and forced closure of news organizations. The insecurity forced the journalist from his home, and he now directs the news site from exile in Costa Rica.
“Despite all of that, we never stopped reporting and broadcasting. Not even a single day,” Chamorro Barrios said. “[President Daniel Ortega] has never been able to silence journalism itself, and the media continues to report from exile.”
In Russia, independent journalism has also proved to be very difficult, if not impossible. Journalist Olga Churakova explained how censorship has increased since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
For example, reporters are now unable to use certain words, such as “war” to describe the military invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the government requires journalists to use the words “special operation.”
“When full-scale war started, all of us had to leave the country,” Churakova said. “Nobody wants to lie to their readers and listeners.”
Similarly to Chamorro Barrios, Churakova has found ways to continue her reporting from outside her country’s borders. She co-founded the popular anti-war podcast “Hi, You’re a Foreign Agent,” in which she and her co-host talk about the attacks on so-called “foreign agents,” or people and entities that the Russian government considers under “foreign influence.”
These sorts of difficult political environments have prompted innovation, such as journalists discovering technological workarounds and new avenues for publication and funding.
However, the reporters emphasized that their work in exile might be made easier with the help of organizations, lawmakers and even citizens from countries outside of their region. One simple way for people to help is just by paying attention to news in other countries, Juan Luis Font, journalist and radio host of ConCriterio in Guatemala, said.
“We would like to see much more interest, not only in the U.S. media, but also in the regional media,” Font said. “Mexico almost ignores whatever is happening in Central America, and I would say that Colombia doesn’t pay that much attention. Those are countries that have a lot of influence over us because they are the biggest economies in our region.”
After being forced out of Myanmar, Danny Fenster, editor-at-large of Frontier Myanmar, is now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and studies how journalists in his situation have continued to report on repressive regimes. He said that there may be hope for exiled journalists through a legal framework.
“You’re basically a refugee once this has happened. They need financial support just to stay alive and to eat,” Fenster said. “But other work that I believe is really important are these legal scholars and human rights workers who can find new systems or new legal vehicles for somebody who is now stateless or somebody who needs a visa but does not have an employer.”
Moderator Kathleen McElroy, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, said that it was important for people outside of these countries to prioritize these attacks on journalists. When highlighting the insecurity in these regions, she listed two recent examples of attacks against reporters in the United States, including a journalist in Las Vegas who was killed because of his reporting and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who is being detained in Russia.
“The cases receive a lot of coverage here in the U.S., and it demonstrates just how relatively safe, though difficult and discouraging, it can be to do journalism here in the U.S.,” McElroy said. “It’s not that way outside of our borders.”
Sierra Juarez is a researcher and fact-checker based in Mexico City.