Accessibility links

War, Violence Drives African Journalists into Exile

  • William Eagle

The Committee to Protect Journalists says in the past year, 55 journalists in 21 countries have gone into exile because of violence, threats and imprisonment. An official of the committee says an estimated 40% of those who’ve fled are from sub-Saharan Africa.

A new report by the CPJ says most journalists who have fled violence or repression come from Iran and Somalia, followed by Ethiopia, Syria and Eritrea.

They’re also found at the head of the CPJ’s annual Impunity Index. It ranks countries according to the degree to which attacks against journalists are investigated, and perpetrators punished.

Tom Rhodes is the Eastern African consultant for the Committee to Project Journalists.

Somali journalist Hassan Mohamed died in exile of diabetes when he could not get proper documentation for medication. (CPJ)
Somali journalist Hassan Mohamed died in exile of diabetes when he could not get proper documentation for medication. (CPJ)
He says the government of at least one of the top five – Somalia – has promised to look into threats against reporters.

"[It’s] been a great disappointment for us at CPJ," he said, "once we saw this new government sworn in and some very promising pledges made by the prime minister, for example, to set up a task force to investigate these murder, even giving bounties to the public to report these cases. We still haven’t seen any changes ."

Some governments say journalists threaten security and the stability of the state, especially in countries at war. Rhodes says others offer an economic angle for the continued crackdown on press freedom.

"There is one trend especially in Ethiopia and Uganda where they accuse the press of being against development. It seems to be the new catch phrase," he said.

"Rwanda has fallen into this thinking where they believe freedom of the press is a luxury – and that you have to develop the economy first before you can have a critical press. Whereas, I’ve always been under the impression that you can’t develop where you don’t have checks and balances, and that’s what the press does."

In East Africa, many journalists flee to large urban areas like the capitals of Kenya and Uganda. Other regional hubs for exiles include South Africa in the southern Africa region and Senegal in West Africa.

Rhodes says Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and one of its largest economies, is not a primary destination for exiles: With five unsolved murders of journalists, Nigeria also has the second-worst impunity rating in Africa behind Somalia.

"Nigeria is a sleeping problem that the world needs to wake up to," he said. "We have journalists who are threatened by Boko Haram in the north and journalists who self-censor in the Niger region when they try environmental reporting, and we have a number whose murdered journalists [whose cases] have not been solved. So, ge nerally speaking, I’d say Nigeria is less and less a hub for any exiled journalist."

Rough welcome

But life is often difficult in their host countries.

Hasan Gesey was an editor for the leading private radio station in Somalia, Somaliweyn. He spent three years in Nairobi before returning to Mogadishu as director of Dalsan radio.

"It is difficult to explain the life of an exile. It is beyond human imagination," he said. "There is a threat on every corner…for exiles in Nairobi, there are special problems. For me, I had to pay one thousand Kenyan shillings [to corrupt police officers]. They want to take money from the Somali community in Nairobi, especially journalists."

The new destinations are not always safe.

The CPJ says security agents from Ethiopia and Rwanda are active in some East African cities.

One Ethiopian media exile in Nairobi, who asked that his name not be used, comments on the fear of being apprehended. Before leaving Addis Ababa, he was an anti-corruption activist and had prior work as a government broadcaster.

"Ethiopian security agents took two Oromo Liberation Front members back to Ethiopia from Nairobi, and prosecuted them. That shows they can take anyone they want," he said. "We are afraid because they might get us, and we don’t know what they’d do if they [succeed]. For that reason, we don’t move around in most cases, and we can’t continue our media work and our human rights activities."


Somali journalist Ahmed Nur, now living in Minnesota, says threats also come from supporters of al-Shabab, the extremist Islamic group waging war against the government.

"They do have some supporters living in Nairobi [and Kampala] and they still harass – through text messages and phone calls –those who fled Somalia saying ‘we are following you, we know where you are, and we will try to harm you,‘" he said.

"Actually, they wounded one journalist in the neighborhood of Eastleigh [Nairobi] using knives. So there are still some supporters of al-Shabab in neighboring countries."

Nur, who lived in the Kenyan capital for four years, says safety issues, along with government regulations, make it difficult to earn a living.

"When you’re an exiled journalist," he said, "it’s very difficult to find a job. Even if you find one, you are not allowed to work. The policy of the Government of Kenya is that you need a work permit, and they don’t allow foreigners to get (one). If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to find an apartment or place to live."

Some complain that international refugee policies and host country policies are making their ordeal even tougher.

The CPJ notes it can take months for governments and the UNHCR to register refugees and give them access to basic services like health care and primary education. The CPJ notes the case of veteran Somali journalist Hassan Mohamed who died of complications from diabetes in 2011. His illness went untreated for months as he waited for the documents he needed to get his medication.

Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs has ordered all refugees, including exiled journalists, to live in camps. Tom Rhodes says the CPJ is working to have the policy changed for journalists:

"This could be a death sentence for especially Somali journalists in exile in Nairobi because the camps are not secure," he said. " A lot of journalists in Nairobi and especially Somali ones are nervous because they don’t know where they are going to end up based on this directive. It’s currently being challenged in court."

The CPJ is working to help exiled journalists in a number of ways.

One is working with the UNHCR to speed up the registration process for refugee journalists .

"The benefit we have is that we know these guys, we work with them and communicate with them often," he said.

"We try to lobby for them with the UNHCR whether it’s a referral letter or going to the offices ourselves to advocate on their behalf. I’ve had to go to police stations and try and get exiled journalists out of jail where Kenyan police have blatantly arrested journalists for the sole purpose of getting a bribe without any genuine case against them."

The Committee to Protect Journalists also provides limited financial support for journalists in distress. It provides funds through its Journalists Assistance Program and is part of a collaborative effort with other press freedom groups.

There’s some optimism as many continue to blog or work for diaspora media. And sometimes, says Rhodes, there’s enough peace back home that exiles can return and resume their contribution to development.