The past few years, journalists have constituted the largest group of applicants to ICORN residencies, with nearly 60 % of the applications. The ICORN programme has provided a safe space and opportunity to continue working for many journalists who chose to leave their countries so not to live under constant fear of censorship, harassment, random imprisonment, or death.
A month ago, Eric Freedman, a professor at the School of Journalism of Michigan State University, contacted ICORN to get in touch with some of the many journalists in our network who have continued to work after release from jail, locally and from exile. He himself won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a legislative corruption scandal in the Michigan legislature.
Returning to journalism
According to statistics of worldwide organisations supporting journalists, and particularly those in conflict zones, the situation for journalists has worsened the past few years. Only in 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on 259 jailed journalists and 48 killed. Many are constantly harassed, randomly imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. In spite of the danger, many continue their journalism work after release from prison.
While scholars have studied why journalists are jailed, and NGOs investigate their prison conditions, there is little research into what journalists do after release. Do they resume work in their own country or abroad?
Freedman has interviewed three writers-in-residence in the ICORN programme, Housam Al-Mosilli, Ali Al-Ibrahim, Dessale Berekhet, to understand what drives them to continue working despite the dangers they expose themselves to through their profession.
“We have chosen this and we have to bear it”
In his writings, Housam Al-Mosilli has dealt with political and human rights issues regarding the situation in the Middle-East region, particularly the rise of extremism in northern Syria. Following three arrests and torture by the Syrian security forces for covering anti-government demonstrations, he fled the country in 2012, and continued working in Lebanon, then Egypt and finally Turkey, as journalist and editor-in-chief, doing “everything that served the cause”. He came to Linköping in 2015 with the ICORN programme. In the interview with Freedman, on the question of facing risks, Housam says:
We have chosen this kind of career. We must have thought about threats that might come with it and the responsibility we are holding on our shoulders. It’s quite important to think about if before and every day. We have chosen this and we have to bear it.
“Either I have to leave or I have to die”
No two formerly imprisoned journalists have the same story to tell, yet at the same time many similar themes emerged from their interviews and from the writings of their counterparts from around the world. For most, his study show, leaving their home country is a painful decision grounded in the reality of the alternatives they face if they remain.
Dessale Berekhet worked as a journalist until the crackdown of the private media in Eritrea September 2001. He then started working for the state owned media as a freelancer, but fled to Uganda after many of his friends and colleagues were arrested by the regime.
If I didn’t leave, the other choice was to disappear for good like all the other columnists who disappeared, and we never saw them again. Either I have to leave or I have to die.
Dessale Berekhet says in the interview with Freedman on the issue of going into exile.
In exile in Uganda, he worked as a journalist and editor for an independent website founded by him and other Eritrean journalists in exile, to fill the gap between opposition and pro-government websites, and to serve the interest of the public. It was shut down, and Berekhet came to Norway with the ICORN programme in 2012. He continues to work tirelessly towards a free and prosperous Eritrea through his writings. In 2014, he established PEN Eritrea together with colleagues.
“We need to finish this cancer”
Even living in exile, many still fear retribution or violence from the repressive regimes in their home countries. Freedman’s study shows that several still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and worry about the safety and economic security of their families back home.
However, they still believe in the mission of journalism to improve conditions back home. For some journalists, imprisonment triggers a redirection of their professional priorities, what issues they cover and their relationship with news sources. For others, the prison experience imprisonment reinforces the direction they had been following before their arrest, covering the same sensitive and controversial issues such as conflict, corruption and human rights.
Syrian journalist and documentary filmmaker, Ali Al-Ibrahim, survived both Assad’s prisons and ISIS’ captivity, and has insistently continued his covering of the atrocities of the war in Syria, which finally pushed him into exile. On why journalism is crucial, Al-Ibrahim says in the interview with Freedman:
You need all the journalists to finish the Assad era and the Daesh era… and the militia era… You need to work in the articles, in the video, in the image to finish this cancer.
“A force for good”
Each 3 May, we celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
The theme of this year’s Press Freedom Day, is Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies, and it includes an academic conference on the safety of journalists. Freedman presents his initial findings in his study Journalism after jail: How journalists work after prison at the conference Thursday 4 May.
Despite the dark reality of the situation of journalists around the world, their relentless endurance of the search and exposure of truth inspires hope for a better world.
After the trauma, fear, pain and isolation of prison, what drives journalists to return to their potentially deadly work? A belief in the mission of journalism. A belief in the power of truth and information to bring about change, including regime change. A belief that journalists individually and collectively can be a force for good.
About Eric Freedman
Eric Freedman is Professor of Journalism and former Associate Dean of International Studies and Programs. During his 20-year newspaper career, he covered public affairs, environmental issues and legal affairs for newspapers in New York and Michigan, winning a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a legislative corruption scandal. He teaches environmental journalism and serves as Director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. He also teaches public affairs reporting, international journalism, feature writing and media law and serves as Director of the school’s Capital News Service, a professional-level internship program in which students cover state government for more than 25 newspapers and online news outlets across Michigan. Read more