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CPJ releases its 2010 survey on journalists in exile

Iranian photographer Mohammad Kheirkhan, left, covers protests in Tehran. He was forced into exile.
Iranian photographer Mohammad Kheirkhan, left, covers protests in Tehran. He was forced into exile.

Payam Borazjani

At least 85 journalists fled their homes in the past year because of attacks, threats and possible imprisonment, with especially high exile rates in Iran, Somalia and Ethiopia, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its annual survey, released on 20 June to mark World Refugee Day. Since 2001, more than 500 journalists have fled their homes, and 454 remain in exile today. But life in exile is precarious and only the beginning of a new set of struggles.

In Ethiopia, government security forces, determined to silence criticism before the May 2010 elections, intimidated journalists at the independent newspaper "Addis Neger", and threatened criminal charges. The newspaper closed and its journalists left the country. "It wasn't a single incident that pushed me to leave Ethiopia - it was numerous incidents over the course of several months," said its editor Mesfin Negash. "We had hoped the harassment and intimidation would stop, but it never did because the government thought that if we stayed in Ethiopia we could influence the outcome of the elections."

The exile rate for African journalists tripled over the past 12 months. At least 42 African journalists, most of them from Somalia and Ethiopia, left their homes. Most sought refuge in Kenya and Uganda. Journalists end up in a legal limbo, unable to work and are victims of ethnically motivated violence and police harassment. They are constantly under stress and worried about family members back home.

In Iran, at least 29 editors, reporters and photographers fled into exile over the past 12 months, the highest annual tally from a single country in a decade. Journalists went into exile after being harassed and interrogated by authorities for coverage of the unrest that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election. "My photos were seen as political criticism of clerics in Iran," said photographer Mohammad Kheirkhan, who currently lives in the US. "The punishment for criticising clerics is prison, torture, and even execution."

Half the Iranian journalists fled to Turkey. Several of these journalists told CPJ that they have been contacted by individuals they believe are working for the Iranian regime, who have warned them that colleagues and relatives back home will be punished if they discuss Iranian politics publically.

Less than a third of exiled journalists are able to continue to work in their profession. Worldwide, exiled journalists face bureaucratic, language and cultural struggles as they establish their new legal status and rebuild their lives. Many accomplished journalists are forced to take on low-wage jobs, like cleaning houses.

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