Ideas Freedom of the press

Why the perspective of exiled journalists is so important

Europe provides shelter to large numbers of journalists who have had to flee their home countries after facing persecution for their work. But too often, writes Toon Vos, they don’t get the support they need to go on doing their job properly, and in the end some just give up.

Published on 1 February 2023 at 09:00

“That’s ridiculous. You can’t be an environmental journalist without sometimes facing danger,” says South Sudanese journalist Opoka p’Arop Otto. We are in The Hague, at the True Stories conference on narrative journalism, and have just been listening to a presentation by Uwe H. Martin. Martin calls himself a visual storyteller and works with his wife, Frauke Huber. Together, they have produced countless series of stunning documentary photographs that would be totally at home in a photography museum.

In the Q&A after Martin’s presentation, Opoka asked him why he chose to work on climate change and environmental decline in the US. Weren’t there more pressing examples in other parts of the world that could benefit from the close attention of Martin’s and Huber’s lens? Martin’s answer was honest and simple: “Because I do not like danger.” 

This was what prompted Opoka’s statement that you cannot be an environmental journalist and steer clear of trouble. “My uncles used to say, ‘If you are a good journalist, you are going to get beaten up.’” Formerly editor-in-chief of a South Sudanese newspaper, he experienced a number of threats to his safety around the time the country became independent in 2011.

As a result of his journalism he faced false accusations, imprisonment, torture and threats, ultimately leading him to leave the country. UNESCO reports that 10 journalists have lost their lives as a result of their work in South Sudan since it became independent. Opoka tells his story in Asylum, an upcoming series of podcasts produced by Alibi Investigations.

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Opoka is just one of many journalists whose reporting puts them in the crosshairs of those in power. In many parts of the world, being a journalist means becoming a defender of human rights. Someone who persistently seeks out and reports the truth, even at the risk of harm and exile. Someone who raises a critical voice against oppression and violence. But doing so comes at a cost. 

The state of press freedom continues to be a global cause for concern, as journalists face increasing dangers, including imprisonment and violence. Advocacy groups such as Amnesty International work to secure the release of those who have been unjustly detained, but sometimes journalists have to make the difficult decision to give up their work due to the risks involved.

During his time as a guest of the Shelter City exchange programme for human rights defenders, Opoka was welcomed into Dutch newsrooms and government offices. After he applied for asylum and eventually became a citizen of the Netherlands, however, the doors of opportunity seemed to close. Despite his extensive experience, he has found it difficult to find work in the media industry.

A journalist from Kenya at the True Stories conference told us she had been struggling for nearly a decade to establish herself in the Dutch media landscape. The usual excuse given for the difficulties faced by journalists like herself and Opoka, both native speakers of English, was that they did not speak Dutch. But this did not prevent British journalists – who also did not speak Dutch – being hired by the same media outlets.

Despite calls for more diversity in the European landscape, discussion in media organisations often remains painfully homogenous. New ideas and perspectives are encouraged, yet are expected to emerge from within. Exiled journalists are overlooked, despite offering valuable insights and perspectives on pressing issues such as migration, conflict, integration and environmental matters.

In 2022 the Evens Foundation, the Stichting Verhalende Journalistiek (Narrative Journalism Foundation) and Are We Europe set up the Journalistic Voices Diversified progamme to address this issue and narrow the divide between exiled journalists and European media. Four exiled journalists from Venezuela, Palestine, Egypt and South Sudan (Opoka) participated in a series of workshops, discussions and other events. They were also given time and funding to work on their own journalism projects. I had the privilege of managing this project for Are We Europe and having the opportunity to engage in weekly meetings with the journalists concerned.

We began by identifying the issues faced by exiled journalists and how the programme could address them. We adopted a collaborative approach from the first in order to ensure that the programme would genuinely address the journalists’ needs and concerns, rather than simply being determined by preconceived notions of desirable outcomes.

Rather than taking a quota-based approach to diversity, we explored the ways in which exiled journalists could benefit the media. We compared the media landscapes in Belgium and The Netherlands with those in the participants’ native countries in order to identify skills that could be developed further. We also gave the participants space to pursue their own interests and explore new approaches to journalism. 

Some exiled journalists found going freelance a bewildering experience, for example.  Omeyma Khair-Masoud, a TV presenter from Palestine, became frustrated with her equipment during a podcasting workshop. “I used to get a cameraman and a sound man whenever I snapped my fingers,” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up. As a freelance journalist in Belgium she has to do everything herself, including recording her interviews and processing the results. Despite the efforts of NGOs supporting exiled journalists, many of them feel forced to abandon their work – the very work they care about so passionately that they left their country in order to be able to pursue it.

During the Shelter City programme in the Netherlands, Opoka frequently talked about the dilemma he faced: to risk everything by returning to South Sudan and resuming his work there, or to remain in the Netherlands in exchange for safety. It is hard to imagine how to navigate such a consequential decision, especially for someone who has invested so much in their journalism.

Journalists in hostile environments are not people to back down easily. They stand up for what they believe in and regard their work as a badge of honour and integrity. To choose the safe option means to walk away. But this might be the only way for them to keep telling their stories.

This article is part of the Evens Foundation Journalistic voices diversified project.
In association with the Evens Foundation

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