Exiled: Stories of Journalists Who Are Forced To Flee

Increasing attacks on media around the globe have forced countless journalists into exile. In Russia, independent journalists fled after Vladimir Putin signed a law in 2022 that subjects any reporter to a 15-year prison sentence for publishing what the regime deemed “fake news” about the military. With the Taliban’s 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, journalists fled for fear of being killed for their previous reporting. But it isn’t only in the most repressive states where journalists have been threatened and forced to flee. “In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector,” a Freedom House report documenting the downward spiral of global press freedom, notes.

Amid these disconcerting trends, students in Stanford’s Spring 2023 Foreign Correspondence Class interviewed and profiled reporters from around the world who have been forced into exile and remain unsure when, if ever, they will be able to return.

By: Janine Zacharia

Bülent Keneş, Turkey

(Photo by Marc Pfitzenmaier)

By: Chloe Shrager

Bülent Keneş, former editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, fled his home country in 2016 amidst President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-media crackdowns. Keneş, 54, faced numerous challenges for his published government criticisms, including death threats and a brief five-day arrest in 2015 for insulting the president on Twitter.

Shortly after the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government launched its takeover of Zaman, publishing a list of 47 journalist targets who worked at the newspaper. Keneş was second on the list.

“I had no doubt that they would detain me and maybe torture and kill me,”  Keneş said in an interview via Zoom.

Facing an international travel ban, he remained in hiding for three weeks – changing his address every week – while planning his escape. Eventually, he was able to cross the sea between Turkey and Greece, remaining in Athens for two days before continuing on to Sweden, where he applied for political asylum on Aug. 8, 2016.

In Sweden, Keneş banded together with some former colleagues and started the Stockholm Center for Freedom, where he volunteered as editor-in-chief and vice president of the organization for two years. Keneş no longer reports under a news agency, but he still researches democratic backsliding and authoritarian regimes all across the world, including Turkey, for the European Center for Populism Studies. He remains pessimistic about his prospects of returning to Turkey as long as President Erdoğan still considers him a terrorist.

Karol Noroña, Ecuador

(Photo by Karen Toro)

By: Grace Doerfler

Karol Noroña, 28, considers journalism “one of the most beautiful loves of [her] life.” But in March, she was forced to leave behind her country and her work because of imminent threats to her life.

She said Ecuador is a lethal country for journalists, and the situation is worsening: three fellow journalists were assassinated in the past year. Noroña’s in-depth coverage of organized crime and human rights abuses in prisons for GK Ecuador, the country’s most widely-read independent news outlet, made her a target for violence. When sources told her that organized crime groups were planning an attack on her life, she and her editors decided that she would leave Ecuador. She fled within 24 hours, and for her safety, no one can know where she is in hiding.

“Two months have passed, but being uprooted is the most painful,” she said in an email. “I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my family, except for a video call.”

For now, Noroña is taking a break from reporting, resting and healing. But she hopes to return to Ecuador soon to resume her life as a journalist.

Despite what she’s endured, Noroña said she stands by her work.

“I don’t regret anything I published,” she said.

Tamerat Negera, Ethiopia

By: Gavin McDonell

Photo courtesy of Terara Network

Ethiopian journalist Tamerat Negera, 45, spent nine years in exile in the United States after his newspaper, Addis Neger, was shut down by state intimidation in 2009. He was invited to return to Ethiopia as a part of the reform agenda following the 2018 election and booked a one-way ticket home.

In 2020, Negera founded Terara Network, an online news organization. In videos on the network’s YouTube channel, he spoke out against ethnic federalism, which he believes is the root of many major problems in Ethiopia.

On Dec. 10, 2021, over 15 federal police officers raided Negera’s house and arrested him for his work with Terara. Negera was taken to a military black site, and for over a week, his family did not know of his whereabouts. He spent the next 117 days in prison without charges.

In April 2022, Negera was released from prison on bail. Forced into exile again, he first escaped to Thailand before landing in the U.S. He does not forecast being able to return to Ethiopia for 10-15 years.

“I don’t see anything changing in a significant way,” he said in a telephone interview.

Hâmìďâ Zâhŕâ Màdàdi, Afghanistan

(Courtesy of Hâmìďâ Zâhŕâ Màdàdi)

By: Hannah Freitag

Hâmìďâ Zâhŕâ Màdàdi, 26, is a radio journalist from Afghanistan. From March 2019 to August 2022, she worked with the Salam Watandar Nationwide Radio Network in the capital, Kabul. Màdàdi covered women’s rights issues, which became very dangerous since the Taliban take-over in August 2021.

“Militants of the Taliban came to our office and attacked us,” Màdàdi said in an interview via an Instagram video call. “They don’t allow girls and women to have activity in the society.”

As Màdàdi saw her life threatened, she fled to Pakistan with her husband, where she has lived in exile for the past ten months. Pakistan’s policy does not allow Afghan journalists to continue their work. “It’s so difficult for me to have this experience of my life,” Màdàdi said.

There are many stories about women’s rights issues in Afghanistan that Màdàdi could not tell before escaping the Taliban. She hopes to move to a place where she can resume her work, because she does not believe she can return. “If I go back to Afghanistan, I’m sure the Taliban will kill me.”

Jom Petchpradab, Thailand

(Photo via Zoom)

By: Nohn na Nagara

Jom Petchpradab is a 60-year-old self-exiled journalist from Thailand who currently resides in Los Angeles. In 2014, when the military junta NCPO staged Thailand’s eleventh successful coup, they detained more than 300 activists, journalists, and academics who criticized the coup. Petchpradab was almost one of those individuals when the NCPO issued a summons to him. It stated that failure to comply within 24 hours would be considered a violation of the law.

At that time, Petchpradab was a reporter having worked for local news outlets such as iTV, NBT, and Voice TV who openly criticized the military junta. Upon receiving the summons, he realized it was time to escape and continue reporting on Thai politics from abroad. His fear was justified, considering reports of torture in detention camps and stories of enforced disappearances of activists.

According to Petchpradab, even before the summons, the press in Thailand was never free. Politicians, the junta, the elite, and the nature of the lèse-majesté law have contributed to the suppression of the free press. The lèse-majesté law stipulates that whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. Thanks to its arbitrary nature, it is often used to silence activists, protesters, the media and ordinary citizens. “All of this leads to the culture of self-censorship in the media,” he said in an interview via Zoom.

After fleeing the country, Petchpradab continued to report on Thai politics through online platforms. However, even outside of Thailand, engaging in such activities carried risks. In 2020, he received a package containing photographs of himself inside his house in Los Angeles, which indicated that he was being monitored.

Petchpradab anticipates the day he can return to Thailand. However, he will only do so if reforms take place within the monarchy and the military, if the economy is demonopolized, and if provincial elections are sanctioned nationwide.

Time may be on his side. The Move Forward party, which has been vocal about implementing these policies, recently won the election and is forming a coalition government. Moreover, more people, most of whom belong to the younger generation, have joined protests demanding for political reform since 2020 despite violent crackdown and legal repercussions.

“I really, really admire the youth who are fighting for the country now in spite of the challenges they face,” he said. “They are offering hope that this country can change.”

Abdullah Elshamy, Egypt

(Courtesy of Abdullah Elshamy)

By: Matthew Merritt

Abdullah Elshamy, a thirty-five-year-old foreign correspondent who covered North and Middle East Africa, fled Egypt in July 2014 after a long and complicated journey. He arrived in Egypt to cover the protests organized by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohamed Morsi, who had been ousted by the military in July 2013.

He was arrested on Aug. 14, 2013. He was covering Rabaa al-Adawiya Square where citizens were participating in a sit-down protest that became violent and chaotic, resulting in the arrival of the Egyptian military and police.

“The hundreds of people that were arrested were put together, regardless of your background or profession,” he said in an interview via Zoom. “I moved around five different prisons over the next 309 days and was released on June 18th, 2014.”

He currently lives in Brussels and covers the European Union for Al Jazeera Media Network.

At first, Abdullah didn’t reveal to the authorities that he was a digital journalist for his own protection. He later realized that was the wise thing to do after learning other journalists were killed.

He doesn’t believe he’ll ever go back to Egypt because of the political situation there. He was sentenced in absentia in 2018.

Taha Siddiqui, Pakistan

By: Ali Cohen

(Courtesy of Taha Siddiqui)

On Jan. 10, 2018, Taha Siddiqui narrowly escaped an “enforced disappearance,” which frequently occurs to dissidents against the government.

“You go missing in secret, and they decide what they want to do, keeping you away from any recognition of imprisonment,” he said in an interview via Zoom.

Targeted for his investigations into Pakistan’s military, Siddiqui spoke openly about his attempted kidnapping, even publishing a letter in the Guardian to the Chief of the Army of Pakistan. Soon after, Siddiqui was alerted that his name was on a kill list.

“Everyone was advising me, I should shut up. I realized, I should rather leave. So, I left,” he said.

Though he leaves behind unfinished stories about covert military options and missing persons, Siddiqui continues to rely on WhatsApp groups of journalists and activists to provide him information. Through his platform, he’s reported on stories his network can’t share due to censorship.

The winner of 2014 Albert Londres prize, ​​the highest award for investigative journalism in France, Siddiqui relocated to Paris with support from the French embassy.

Concerning the outlook for freedom in Pakistan, Siddiqui remains relatively pessimistic. Moreover, he doubts ever going back.

“I do not see myself returning because if I do, I will probably be killed very quickly. It’s better that I stay away,” he said.

Emilio Lugo, Mexico

By: Kelsey Carido

Emilio Lugo, 51, has been on the run since 2013.

Lugo started his journalism career in his hometown of Acapulco, Mexico in the state of Guerrero. After a few stints in small local newsrooms and radio, he quickly became a prominent reporter in the state.

Lugo was shocked by the media silence after the murder of Guerrero State Senator Armando Chavarría Barrera in 2009—which was allegedly carried out in cooperation with the opposing candidate—and responded by creating an investigative reporting blog called Agoraguerrero. Its mission was to investigate violence in the region and hold complicit state authorities accountable.

Agoraguerrero was subject to various forms of pressure from the Guerrero government. Lugo received anonymous threats via email and bribes to take down the site that he declined. He also survived two separate murder attempts.

“By 2015 I was already very worn out, I had stopped publishing, I had to close the [site] and I was basically trying to survive,” he said in an interview via a WhatsApp video call. “I went through difficult situations. International organizations give you support, but it is very limited, it is not constant. You have to find a way to survive. First, try not to get killed, and second, try to survive.”

After escaping to Uruguay as a refugee and living on the streets for almost five years, Lugo went back to Mexico. He was promised protection by the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists but instead left him completely on his own.

He has since stopped reporting and working in journalism, continuing to survive under the radar in Mexico.

“I am here in Mexico, surviving within my own country, surviving after having done or exposed situations against humanity, two relevant cases against humanity,” he said. “And now it is like a punishment to try to survive.”

Grevic Alvarado, Venezuela

(Courtesy of Grevic Alvarado)

By: Rebecca-Ann Jattan

Grevic Alvarado is a Venezuelan journalist now working and residing in Trinidad and Tobago. The 37-year-old was forced to leave in May 2018 following threats from government officials, even being fired at the direct request of the Anaco city mayor, he said.

His coverage of political and community issues caused scrutiny that threatened his livelihood and safety. “Whenever I went to a community in trouble, the followers of the government prevented me from doing my job,” Alvarado said in written responses to questions sent via email.

Since moving to Trinidad and Tobago, he has continued his work at the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday where he is “the first and only Latino journalist to write for a newspaper in TT,” he said in an email. Latinos in Trinidad are his target audience.

His hopes of returning to Venezuela are dim, as the few remaining media outlets are government-run. He has settled into a life in Trinidad. “I do my job calmly and safely,” he said.

Abdullah Bozkurt, Turkey

(Courtesy of Abdullah Bozkurt)

By: Lucy Nemerov

In September of 2020, exiled Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, 52, was attacked outside of his home in Stockholm, Sweden.

Four years earlier, Bozkurt had been mobilizing reporters at his startup Muhabir (Reporter) News to report on the attempted coup against the Turkish government.

“I went back to Ankara to oversee the news operation, then we started to see the government is coming after the journalists, instead of the military guys who they’re supposed to,” he said. “And then I realized this is something else.”

The government’s focus on journalists came as an unexpected retaliation to the coup, and Bozkurt made the decision to leave the country after 42 warrants were issued against journalists in a single day.

“I wasn’t on that list,” he said. “But I was pretty sure that the next time I will be. So I decided, I rushed to the airport . . . the day after I left, the police raided my newsroom in Ankara. So if I stayed that day longer, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you right now. I would probably be languishing behind bars for four years.”

Bozkurt continues to face violence and intimidation from the Turkish government, yet still works as a journalist, reporting on Turkey remotely. Currently, he is working on compiling testimonials of victims who were abducted, tortured and kept incommunicado in a black site run by Turkish intelligence MIT in Ankara.

Wang Zhi’an 王志安, China

(Courtesy of Wang Zhi’an)

By: Laura van Megen

Three years ago, 55-year-old investigative journalist Wang Zhi’an left China for Japan. He cannot return home. “I may be the only Chinese journalist in exile that still does reporting,” he said in an interview via a WhatsApp video call. Many of his colleagues left the sector. Even those that left the country “feel it is not safe to continue reporting.”

Having started his journalism career at Chinese state media CCTV in the 1990s, he recalled when journalism was not only relatively free, but also needed by the government. In the late 2000s under Hu Jintao, however, the government’s fear of losing legitimacy led to growing media control, he explained. After Xi Jinping came to power, the space for investigative and critical pieces declined further, leaving only room for “positive stories”.

In 2016, he left CCTV. In 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, government censors deleted his influential social media accounts, together with those of many others. After that, Chinese media companies didn’t dare to work with him and his interview requests remained unanswered. The only way to continue was by moving abroad permanently.

Since May 2022, he reports from Japan, using his Twitter and Youtube channel to cover China in ways Chinese media isn’t allowed, including critical pieces on the country’s political and economic elites. By now, “I cannot return anymore”, he said. “The state machinery considers me a risk.” Consequently, Chinese journalists that like him report on China from abroad “will become an important window into understanding China,” he predicted.

Lara Aburamadan, Gaza

(Courtesy of Lara Aburamadan)

By: Shayna Freedman

Lara Aburamadan, 31, is an exiled Palestinian freelance journalist who grew up and worked in Gaza.

Aburamadan fled Gaza in October 2016 due to criticizing the ruling Islamist group Hamas, her different religious beliefs, and her sexuality. She explained in a telephone interview how she believes the only way she would be able to go home to Gaza is if the political landscape changed entirely.

“I can’t just go back because there is a danger in my life as a journalist there, and coming to the US, I have been able to criticize Hamas, which also puts me under threat,” she said.

Since coming to live in San Francisco as an asylum seeker, Aburamadan has found freelance work with Survival Media Agency, a nonprofit that produces high-quality visual media for social movements, and the San Francisco Chronicle as well as publishing work on other platforms such as Time Magazine, NPR, and Vice News. Outside her freelancing journalism work, Aburamadan is a curator at a gallery known as Refugee Eye, in the Mission District of San Francisco, working with her partner Jehad al-Saftawi. Refugee Eye’s mission is to serve as a way to illuminate, through artistic works, refugees’ lives and stories.

Cindy Regidor, Nicaragua

(Courtesy of Cindy Regidor)

By: Emily Schrader

Nicaraguan journalist Cindy Regidor, 34, moved to Costa Rica for personal reasons in 2015 — just three years before President Daniel Ortega cracked down on anti-government protests. From afar, she watched the Ortega regime criminalize her news publication, Confidencial, a news site with associated television programs. Following multiple police raids on their offices — first in December 2018 and again in May 2021 — the Confidencial team fled to San José, Costa Rica. Now, Regidor is uncertain that returning to her home country will become possible.

Regidor studied journalism at the private Central American University in Managua, then saw the state seize control of five other private universities in 2022. A similar takeover occurred in 2015. She began her career as a television journalist with the popular Canal 2, then witnessed an ally of Ortega buying the channel to secure sympathetic coverage. An atmosphere of terror descended over independent media outlets in Nicaragua, she said in a phone interview.

When Ortega first returned to power in 2007, “it was clear that it was a government that would treat the independent press with hostility,” Regidor said. “I began my career in a context in which it was practically impossible to interview government officials,” Regidor said. “It became entirely impossible with the [January 2007] return of Ortega.”

As an audiovisual journalist with the exiled Confidencial team and as a freelance correspondent for France 24 (Spanish), Regidor has learned to draw upon alternative news sources, anonymous informants, and internet videos while reporting on Nicaragua from abroad. Her work is complicated by government intimidation of sources and dissemination of propaganda that “sells an image of false normality,” Regidor said.

Amidst rampant repression, Regidor said that the Confidencial team maintains clarity on their journalistic mission: “We are not politicians, and we cannot promote a solution to the crisis, but we can continue informing the Nicaraguan citizenry and the international community on the issues that affect them. I hope that young people are inspired by our work, and that they can someday live in a new age of independent press in Nicaragua.”

Mir Suhail, India

(Courtesy of Mir Suhail)

By: Henry Hill-Gorman

Kashmiri cartoonist Mir Suhail, 33, has been unable to return home to Kashmir since 2019. In 2016, Suhail published his first satirical cartoon in a local paper, expressing frustration with the Indian government’s treating Kashmiris as second-class citizens. Following its publication, Suhail says he received threats from Indian authorities, leading him to self-exile himself from Kashmir.

For Suhail, his satirical cartoons allow him to speak truth to power in a country with increasingly repressive freedom of expression. It has also come at great personal cost to him and his family.

Suhail says that the Indian government has criminalized many of his cartoons.

“Whenever I post, I know Kashmiris can’t repost my cartoons anymore…because they can also get arrested for that,” he said. Suhail believes that if he were to return home, the Indian government would immediately confiscate his passport and likely imprison him, an unfortunate reality that has already befallen several of his friends.

That said, Suhail remains defiant and continues to publish cartoons satirizing the Indian government from his new home in New York City.

“I don’t want any rewards. I feel like when the authorities hate your work that’s the biggest reward… You want to make them uncomfortable.”


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