‘Caught in the middle’: Journalists seeking asylum often stuck in limbo

Photo: AP

Mexican journalist Ricardo Chávez Aldana was leaving his home, his job, and his country behind as he hurried across the border into El Paso, Texas in December 2009.

Chávez had been covering drug cartels and corruption for Radio Cañón in Ciudad Juárez, and he believed that his reporting had made him and his family targets for cartel retaliation. His two teenage nephews had just been murdered. His family was receiving death threats, and he feared further violence.

So he and his wife and children slipped across the Bridge of the Americas from Mexico into the United States. There, at the El Paso border crossing, they asked for political asylum and received a six-month humanitarian visa.

Five and a half years later, his asylum case is still winding its way through the US Immigration Court in El Paso. Chávez had his final hearing before a judge last month. He now awaits a written decision.

Chávez is part of an ever-growing population of journalists forced into exile by fear of persecution. In June, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual “Journalists in Exile” report tallied 82 new cases in the past year alone, based on cases in its Journalist Assistance Program, which offers aid and legal support to vulnerable journalists and their families. The actual number of exiled journalists worldwide might in fact be much higher.

Reporters Without Borders released its own statistics late last year, indicating a 106 percent increase in exiled journalists between 2013 and 2014. It counted 139 professional journalists and 20 citizen journalists who had fled their home countries, fearing reprisals for their reporting.

Forced exile is “as violent an aggression against press freedom as imprisoning journalists,” said María Salazar-Ferro, coordinator of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program.

“It’s a very easy, very underreported way of silencing critical voices,” she said. “You send someone somewhere else where, yes, they’re able to survive, but they’re not able to continue working, and they’re most certainly not able to continue being critical.” In the last year, only 2 percent of journalists were able to continue working in exile.

We used to have the impression that a journalist in a conflict zone was almost like a Red Cross worker or something. You could wear a press sign and be off-limits for combatants. And yet, today, I think in a lot of cases it’s almost the opposite.

The CPJ report shows that Ethiopia overtook Syria as the top country from which journalists flee. Salazar-Ferro estimated that the majority of those Ethiopian journalists hailed from independent media outlets, most of them online. The growth of internet publishing may be contributing to heightened violence towards journalists, said Edward L. Carter, director of the School of Communications at Brigham Young University. In the past, militant groups and governments relied on journalists to disseminate their messages. Now, Carter said, they can easily publish their own messages through Twitter and other social media. They no longer need journalists to do it for them.

“We used to have the impression that a journalist in a conflict zone was almost like a Red Cross worker or something. You could wear a press sign and be off-limits for combatants,” he said. “And yet, today, I think in a lot of cases it’s almost the opposite.”

The violence directed towards journalists has made the issues surrounding journalists’ asylum claims all the more pressing, said Carter. “It’s become a more difficult world for journalists to operate in, and the law needs to recognize that more than ever.”

Carter is among a handful of lawyers, academics and advocates who call for greater awareness for journalists and their unique plight when facing refugee law. Asylum claims overall are difficult to pursue—47.2 percent of US requests were denied in 2013—but Carter sees specific legal hurdles facing journalists.

Borrowing language from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, American law defines five categories of vulnerability that make applicants eligible for asylum: a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Carter, who has also worked as a lawyer, notes that “journalism doesn’t fit nicely into one of the categories.” Generally, exiled journalists apply for asylum on the basis of “political opinion” or “membership in a particular social group.”

But in his research, Carter has found that journalists sometime struggle to understand their roles within those paradigms. Journalistic ideals like impartiality sometimes interfere.

“The issue with ‘political opinion’ is that most journalists are not going to see themselves as political actors, necessarily,” Carter said. “And yet journalists are covering issues in their societies that are sensitive, that are maybe controversial, that are emotional or have an impact on people.”

When Iraqi journalist Mohammed Mushib fled Baghdad for Syria in 2007, UN workers asked if he wanted to be a political refugee, he said. His answer was no.

Mushib identifies as Sunni, but as a reporter and show host on Baghdad TV, he would speak critically about both Sunni and Shia. “I was talking in the middle,” he said.

The issue with ‘political opinion’ is that most journalists are not going to see themselves as political actors, necessarily. And yet journalists are covering issues in their societies that are sensitive, that are maybe controversial, that are emotional or have an impact on people.

His television station had been bombed in April 2007. A couple days later, he was at home when he received an unexpected knock on his door. He looked out the window. Three people were waiting for him.

“I was sure they came to kill me,” he said. Two had their faces covered. The third had a gun. Mushib opened the door. They warned him: either he would leave, or his children’s lives would be in danger. Mushib remembered one of the men saying, “The morning I see you, I will kill you.”

Mushib left for Syria the next morning in the trunk of a car. But when he met refugee resettlement agents from the UN and individual countries like the US, he had a hard time explaining where he stood politically.

“There was a lady. She was talking to me, of course through an interpreter. I still remember, she asked me about my story,” Mushib said. “And I told her I left one place because of the Shia militia, and I left another place because of Al Qaeda [a Sunni group]. And the guy, he translated to me, ‘She is saying you are a liar.’”

Mushib and his family would ultimately be brought to Salt Lake City as refugees in 2008. At the time, his English was weak, so he found work wherever he could. One of his first jobs was landscaping. “I am a journalist over there, but here I’m working with shovels. I’m digging holes,” he said. “It’s really hard to move from a pen to a shovel.”

The category of “political opinion” poses different challenges for Carlos Spector, an El Paso lawyer representing Chávez and other Mexican asylum seekers. Spector said he believes that journalism is intrinsically political, but he points to the nature of violence in Mexico as an impediment to proving persecution to a court.

Certain Mexican cartels have grown so powerful that they work alongside corrupted police and government officials. But the cartels themselves can seem apolitical in nature. Judges sometimes dismiss the retaliation journalists face when they report on drug crime and corruption as “mere criminality,” Spector said, “because a big portion of [the attacks] are done by criminals.”

His cases are further complicated, he said, by the fact that persecuted journalists often “prefer silence” to speaking out. He credits their silence to a combination of journalistic training and fear of retaliation. Many of his clients are “working class journalists” who have little protection and a hard time rallying public support.

Under asylum law, journalists may also argue that they are persecuted as members of a “particular social group.” “When a journalist prints his name in the byline of a published piece, he is essentially announcing his membership in a group of journalists,” Katy Mann, a lawyer with a San Francisco-based immigration law office, concluded in a 2012 research paper. Mann calls it one of the “grey areas of the law,” since that argument is sometimes rejected by judges who deem a person’s job to be easily changeable.

For Gambian journalist Omar Bah, the public nature of his work helped significantly when it came to applying for refugee status. When representatives from the US government investigated his case, “it was very easy for them to just Google and see my activities as member of the Gambia Press Union. That alone was enough for me to gain asylum because of my membership,” he said.

In the Gambia, Bah had been secretary general of the press union and an editor of the Daily Observer newspaper. He had also been secretly contributing to Freedom Newspaper, an online publication openly critical of the Gambia’s government.

That was a risky thing to do, given the Gambian government’s open antagonism towards journalists. In a 1994 speech, Gambian president Yahya Jammeh reportedly said, “Get rid of them, the so-called journalists. They are very vulnerable.” In the decades since, his regime has been accused of imprisoning journalists without charge, and of being involved in journalists’ deaths, including the unsolved murder of Deyda Hydara in 2004. Just this summer, press freedom organizations lobbied Jammeh’s government to release yet another journalist, Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay, who was arrested last month.

Bah knew firsthand the consequences of crossing the government. He remembers what happened in 2001, when he tried to cover the court martial trial of a military officer with ties to the president. All of a sudden, he said, soldiers surrounded him. They started to kick him and beat him with the butts of their guns.

“They would hoist me in the air, and when I was coming down on the ground, they would be hitting me and kicking,” Bah said. “My body was soaked in blood. I screamed until I lost consciousness.”

When he awoke, he found himself in a black cell filled with mosquitoes, mice, and, most ominously, shovels. Bah speculates they intended to bury him if he died from his wounds. Eventually, he said, he was released without being charged.

About five years later, in 2006, Bah believes his email account was hacked. The government had somehow found out that he was writing for the Freedom Newspaper. His life was once again in danger.

A friend warned Bah to leave, and he escaped across the border. By the time he reached Senegal, his face was on state TV in the Gambia, branding him as a wanted person, he said.

Bah had never imagined he would live outside the Gambia. But now, even Senegal felt too close to home to be safe. He left for Ghana, and then Rhode Island in 2007. His wife joined him there. They had never heard of the state before.

Financial pressures started to mount, and Bah said he was plagued by nightmares of home. “My mind was still in Gambia. I was a person of two worlds, caught in the middle.” Ultimately, like many in his position, he did not return to journalism. Instead, he founded his own refugee organization, where he helps others facing the same struggles, the same barriers—and the same nightmares of persecution.

Allison Griner is a freelance multimedia journalist currently based in Beijing. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera Magazine, Esquire, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @alligriner.