Governments in more than two dozen countries are using threats, attacks and legal action to retaliate against journalists and critics who fled overseas, a new report has found.
At a time when repressive laws, unrest and conflict are forcing high numbers of journalists into exile, the nonprofit Freedom House has seen an increase in efforts by hostile governments to retaliate against critics.
Over the past decade, at least 26 governments targeted journalists abroad in a process known as transnational repression, according to a report released by the group on Wednesday.
It documents 112 cases of physical transnational repression perpetrated against reporters between 2014 and 2023. Some of the journalists work for established media outlets, others are freelance, and the report cited cases of those who work for VOA's sister outlets.
"All of those are attempts to stifle their critical reporting. And I think, ultimately, it's because governments in power do fear the truth and do fear information that can hold them to account," report co-author Jessica White told VOA.
The perpetrators are a who's who of authoritarian governments, including Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Phnom Penh.
"The latest chapter in the growing authoritarian playbook is to go after exiled journalists who tell the truth about a regime's priorities, performance, and misdeeds," Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said in a statement.
The tactics vary from assaults to detentions and unlawful deportations. But indirect and digital transnational repression — like online harassment and doxing, where private information about someone is posted online — is even more common, according to White.
"The issue of these more indirect and digital forms of transnational repression is that they're harder to track," White said.
China and Russia — both known for their repressive domestic media environments — are among those targeting critical reporters in exile.
In some cases, family members who still live in the countries are harassed as a way to indirectly target the reporter. That tactic is documented in China's Xinjiang region, where the government threatens and detains family members of Uyghur journalists who live in exile.
"The punishment for a person who speaks truth to power is punishing their entire family," Gulchehra Hoja, a journalist with Radio Free Asia's Uyghur Service, told Freedom House.
Some of Hoja's family members were targeted after she started working at Radio Free Asia, VOA's sister outlet.
In a statement emailed to VOA, a spokesperson at China's Washington embassy denied that Beijing retaliates against journalists and critics, saying there is "no such thing as 'transnational repression'" in China.
Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson, said that China abides by international law, that journalists "enjoy full freedom" to report in accordance with the law, and that Beijing's mass detention of Uyghurs is about "countering violence, terrorism and separatism.... which has won the heartfelt support of the people."
The Iranian government featured among the most brazen perpetrators, a fact VOA Persian host Masih Alinejad is acutely familiar with.
Alinejad was the target of a 2021 kidnapping attempt in New York, which the FBI says was part of a Tehran plot to bring her to Iran. And the Justice Department in January indicted three people it says are part of an Eastern European organized crime gang, who in a separate case allegedly plotted to murder Alinejad.
Since the 2021 attempt, the Iranian American journalist has received U.S. government protection and moves frequently between safe houses.
Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately reply to VOA's email requesting comment.
To Alinejad, everyone should care about transnational repression — not just those who are directly affected.
"Transnational repression is not just a threat for us, for dissidents. It's a threat to democracy," Alinejad told VOA.
"That's why I think every single person who lives in democracy should care about it, because dictators are not targeting us — they're targeting democracy. They're targeting freedom of expression. They're targeting freedom of speech," she said.
White told VOA that if transnational repression succeeds, "the risk is that we end up being cut off from whole segments of the world."
Democratic governments around the world have a duty to better support and protect journalists living in exile in their countries, White said, including by making humanitarian visas more readily available.
Social media companies also have a responsibility to protect exiled reporters, since digital transnational repression takes place on their platforms, White added.
Transnational repression often takes a psychological toll on its targets, according to White, and can lead reporters to self-censor or stop working entirely.
For Alinejad, the U.S. government has suggested she enter witness protection, she said. But stopping her work was out of the question.
"I don't have any guns and bullets — I don't carry weapons. But this government, they have everything, and they're really scared of me," Alinejad said, referring to the Iranian government. "And that gives me power — that, wow, even with my words, even with my social media, I'm more powerful than them."