Even though this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two investigative journalists working in two different authoritarian contexts, autocrats are becoming bolder and more brash in their crackdown on independent media. A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog, confirms that the number of jailed journalists has reached an all-time high this year of 293.
Repression and stigmatization are driving journalists into exile. Authoritarians in Belarus and Turkey are designating journalists as “extremists” and “terrorists” in response to their investigations into the corrupt dealings of rulers and their coverage of anti-government protests. Russia’s indiscriminate imposition of the “foreign agent” label, once applied to NGOs, is now increasingly extended to journalists. It is designed to put off advertisers from association with their outlets, ironically pushing journalists to seek the foreign funding they are accused of getting.
Rather than cease journalism altogether, however, a host of Russian reporters and independent media organizations have been forced to flee and carry on their operations and reporting from outside the country. But even in exile, journalists face daunting challenges. They are regularly monitored and hacked, subjected to disinformation and vicious smear campaigns. Many of them are physically attacked or harassed, while seeing their family members intimidated in their home countries in ruthless efforts to pressure them into ceasing their reporting from overseas.
Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, released amid the Biden administration’s Democracy Summit, rightfully recognized support to free and independent media as one of the five priority areas where the U.S. will focus its efforts to strengthen democracy. It was the first stated priority on the list, providing an important acknowledgement of the pivotal role journalism plays in democratic societies. The summit commenced with a panel on media, probing ways in which the international community can support independent media in challenging contexts.
Prevailing Discourse on Relevance
Such coordinated state action is welcome, but it must not overlook support to the growing number of journalists living in exile. So far, there is no cohesive strategy among Western donors about funding exiled media; moreover, there is a prevailing discourse among these donors that exiled journalists are only relevant for a brief period after their departure, and then they are presumed to lose touch and relevance. Even those journalists who receive initial relocation support struggle with what comes next after these funds run out.
Authoritarians force journalists into exile and then stigmatize them as hopelessly out of touch with local developments. This was a tactic applied to dissidents forced to flee abroad in the Soviet times (think Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Vasiliy Aksyonov), and it continues to be tried-and-true today. Western media outlets and donors that accept this framing may inadvertently support this deliberate erasure of dissenting voices. They also advance a dated stereotype that somehow only reporters allowed to physically reside within a home country are qualified to break news or conduct detailed investigations.
Today’s exiled journalists accept the fundamental insecurity of their profession. They would prefer to do their jobs in their home countries, but are willing to bounce around among digital publications and start-up platforms abroad as the only way they can still pursue their chosen careers. They are tech savvy — indeed, being exiled increasingly demands a mastery of social media and the command of new digital tools — and are keen to collaborate with colleagues from other countries within broader global networks, such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). One Belarusian journalist working from Poland described her current circumstances as working remotely, like so many others in the midst of a global pandemic.
Supporting Exiled Journalists
To better support exiled journalists, Western civil society and media partners will have to discard outdated notions about what makes a journalist relevant. First, they should recognize that digital platforms now blur the once strict lines between walled off exile and local reporters. Overseas media organizations like Meduza – a Latvia-based group of Russian journalists (also designated “foreign agents” by the Russian government) – maintain extensive contacts to cover developments within their own countries. Their coverage is disseminated in Russia and abroad, making them one of the 10 most-cited internet sources in Russian last year.
Digital tools also allow exiled journalists to pump their own reporting back into closed countries. Indeed, Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian journalist in exile in Lithuania whose flight in May from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk following a fabricated bomb threat traced back to Belarus’s security services – was labelled a terrorist by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko precisely because the Telegram channel where Protasevich was the editor, Nexta, covered opposition demonstrations and added hundreds of thousands of new followers who wanted to understand the protests. Protasevich remains in detention in Minsk.
Second, philanthropists need new measures of what constitutes “impactful” journalistic work. Western donors have become accustomed to applying the “capacity-building” model to foreign journalists, supporting their training with the objective of them returning to their home countries. But these assumptions no longer hold in these increasingly hostile domestic environments. Impactful work for some exiled journalists means conducting complex investigations from afar, while for others it may mean teaming up with foreign colleagues, as in the case of the OCCRP and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (most recently of Pandora Papers fame). Still for others, it will mean finding a safe space within overseas journalism schools and think tanks that allows them to both retool and share their experiences with other reporters confronting similar illiberal tactics – including many in the West itself.
Third, Western media outlets also have a role to play. Large news organizations often work on similar stories as their exiled counterparts. They can learn from their reporting and access their networks. Roman Badanin – the editor of the now-banned Russian investigative outlet Proekt– conducted an earlier investigation into Russian dealings in Africa to the one by the New York Times that was awarded the Pulitzer in 2020. He reminds us that even the simple act of linking to an exiled news source confers visible legitimacy and provides security for the embattled journalists.
Having nearly exterminated all independent media, autocrats are targeting social media platforms next, precisely because they allow dissenting voices to reach millions from abroad. Now is the time to help build resilience: platforms should be conferring with exiled journalists and resisting authoritarians’ pressure in this impending standoff. Without access to these digital tools the important and increasingly relevant voices of even exiled journalists will be silenced.