For journalists who have been forced to leave their home countries, online platforms offer an important way for them to maintain contact, keep up to date with event and contribute stories on the people and places they have left behind.
With large numbers of journalists being forced from their countries because of political and security issues, online media offer an opportunity for them to keep up-to-date with events happening back home during their time in exile. Online platforms also provide the chance for journalists to contribute stories and get their voices heard, despite having been physically removed from their countries.
Speaking to exiled journalists in East Africa, it immediately becomes apparent that online media represent a major lifeline to them, helping them to maintain their sense of identity and connection to their home, despite the major separation they have undergone.
However, online media platforms do provide their own challenges and problems, not least of which is the fact that governments are becoming increasingly aware of their significance and are using them to track down journalists in hiding.
Of course there are also logistical and practical issues involved, and many exiled journalists lack the equipment to write and publish stories online. This forces large numbers to frequent internet cafes, and they do so in fear of their fellow internet-users spying on them as they work.
Online news allowing freer expression
Many countries in the East African region have large populations of journalists and other academics living in the diaspora, whose only available means of finding out what is happening in their home countries are internet news sites.
Websites such as sudaneseonline, AfricaNews.com, ThinkAfricaPress and a variety of others provide the opportunity for journalists to keep updated on the situation at home. But equally importantly, they offer them the chance to have work published and broadcast despite not being in the country at the time.
Of course, certain issues ensue when journalists are unable to access sources or place themselves within the particular context about which they are attempting to write. However, many journalists who have been forced to leave their countries maintain contact with former colleagues and have access to sources at home, enabling them to write informed and informative work.
Keeping spirits strong
Zerihun Tesfaye was forced from Ethiopia in 2009 after being targeted by the government because of his work at Addis Nega newspaper. Facing charges under the nation’s draconian anti-terrorism laws, he fled to Nairobi and has recently been relocated to the US after lengthy security checks.
“Life is so hard and difficult because I don’t have a work permit, I don’t have a sustainable income to live on and the security conditions are so terrible – government intelligence men are still here,” he said, while in Nairobi adding “because of that reason you live in a big prison.”
Zerihun has utilised the internet to great effect during his time in Kenya, and thanks to his training on online security he has been able to help fellow journalists in exile use online platforms safely and effectively.
“Online media has helped me so much. If online media had not been here, then seriously I would not be in the positive sense you see me in now,” he said, adding “social media helps me to contact my friends out there, to communicate with different professionals and to hear news from home.”
“I am always eager to hear what the world says, and so social media helped to keep my spirit strong – social media really helped exiled journalists very much,” he added.
Opportunity to speak out
“This provides a good opportunity for me to keep doing this profession, because I love this profession and I want to write stories to inspire my people,” noted Zerihun, “at this time the political space in Ethiopia is almost closed, and there are no political publications right now, so I think this is a good opportunity to speak out for the people that have been suppressed for more than 20 years.”
“I have the potential – I know that,” he said, “social media gives me the opportunity to keep in touch with changes in Ethiopia.”
Fellow exiled journalists are also using social media and other online platforms to maintain a level of contact with their home countries and a readership from abroad.
John Penn de Ngong is a particularly vociferous critic of the South Sudanese government, and as a result has been forced into life in exile in Kenya. His continued campaigning makes it difficult for him to remain incognito in Nairobi, and he fears the power of the security forces from his home country.
“It has opened up a new arena,” he said, adding “wherever I am I can write online and keep in touch with what is happening in South Sudan.”
“I want to open a website to publish my books and to publish the books of other journalists – they have poetry and they have essays, I can also give them a platform to continue with their work online outside South Sudan,” he added.
Online platforms have also allowed the prominent Ethiopian journalist, Eskinder Nega, currently serving an 18-year jail term in the infamous Kality jail in Addis Ababa, to convey a message to the world, arguing for democracy, equality and fairness from his prison cell.
It is almost unthinkable that a student in the US, China or elsewhere can, at the click of a finger read a letter penned by a journalist languishing in an Ethiopian jail. But through blogs, social networks and other online resources, this is now possible.
While the benefits of online media platforms for exiled journalists are obvious, the increased use of such platforms has brought with it new risks and challenges. As authorities continue to recognise the impact that online media can have on news consumers, the battle to silence the journalists behind the work has moved onto another front.
Rights groups and journalists are increasingly aware of the prevalence of security agents throughout cities such as Nairobi, as officers from neighbouring countries are often found to be following exiled members of the media.
With many journalists having to use public places to access the internet and post their stories, they are understandably suspicious of other internet users and the fact that agents could be monitoring their movements.
This makes security training for journalists essential. While physical safety and security is more often than not a major concern for exiled media workers, and many require the kind of advice that will enable them to work safely as journalists in the future, their reliance on online media means that tips and tools which will allow them to continue their work abroad without being tracked down or persecuted are of the utmost importance.
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