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Forced to Flee: How Exiled Journalists Hold the Powerful to Account

As press freedoms around the globe erode, journalists are building networks outside their home countries to continue reporting

Roman Anin left Russia in May 2021 and his team at IStories eventually followed. They’re now based in Prague, where Czech authorities have given special consideration to exiled journalists from Russia [Lenka Grabicova]

When Gloria Chan talks about the work of Green Bean Media, the Hong Kong-focused exile news site she helped found last year in the United Kingdom, she is crisply matter of fact.


“We are not doing something that special. … We just want to produce [the kind of] programs that we [did] in the past,” says Chan, who teamed up with other members of the diaspora to launch Green Bean against the backdrop of China’s suppression of the free Hong Kong press, including “national security” legislation to stifle dissent.


With stories about state censorship of books and films, immigration, and culture, “We are not really doing something ‘wow’ … [but] no one in Hong Kong can do it,” Chan adds “This is a problem.”


The lack of independent newsrooms unfettered by censorship, harassment, and death threats is a big problem — and it’s one that’s spread around the world. Since 1993, more than 900 journalists have been murdered, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — the vast majority of those with complete impunity for the killers. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cited a record 28 countries as having “very bad” press freedom violations in 2022, with 42 classified as “difficult,” 62 as “problematic,” and just eight as “good.”


Under these conditions, reporters leave home out of fear for their lives or those of their families and friends. Some escape after imprisonment, torture, or sham trials. Threats come from all sides — totalitarian governments, brutal military regimes, targeted violence from gangs, and thuggish oligarchs.


Confronted with the obstacles of refugee life, some regretfully lay down their cameras and close their laptops. “We need to be able to provide a place for journalists where they can resume their journalistic activities. [Being] abroad is one thing, but being abroad and not continuing journalism is a problem for all of them,” says RSF Editor-in-Chief Pauline Adès-Mével. “We always try to support as long as possible journalism in the country, and it’s not for us the best solution, ever, to have all these people leave. [But] sometimes, there is no choice.”


There have been growing reasons for the necessity of exile journalism. As the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance noted in a study of the global state of democracy in 2022, “Over the past six years, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy.” Repression was significantly on the rise in non-democracies, and even in places where democracy was the prevailing system, there had been stagnation or erosion — all of this fueled in part by forces from war to pandemic to economic uncertainty. Dictators and criminal enterprises see a free press as an existential threat, and seek to discredit, diminish, or destroy its work — and reporters themselves.


Some reporters, like Zahra Joya, find ways to soldier on from afar: A child when the Taliban took over her native Afghanistan, Joya founded Rukhshana Media in 2020 to highlight the plight of Afghan women. She fled the country in August 2021, and now lives and works in the United Kingdom.


“We only have this way to speak about what [is] happening [to] our people,” says Joya, one of Time’s 2022 Women of the Year. Rukhshana Media received the 2022 Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism, conferred by the Nieman class of 2022 to honor the news outlet for its “unwavering commitment to giving prominence to a silenced and terrorized community, the women of Afghanistan who are living under Taliban control.” “We lost everything,” she says. “We lost our family, our home, [even] our country … [The] only thing that we have is to speak about the Taliban’s violence and the other injustice that is going on in our society.”


Getting away from the immediate danger may boost safety, but it can make the reporting itself exponentially harder. Some report or edit from outside the country with correspondents operating clandestinely from within. Newer technologies like secure messaging apps help greatly, as does access to leaked documents, but verification becomes substantially harder across borders. Hostile governments obfuscate and deliberately feed exile outlets false information to tank their credibility.


Maziar Bahari, founder of exile outlet IranWire, says the interference takes insidious forms, with officials even posing as agonized relatives of detainees and murder victims and pleading with the media to drop stories. “This government [is] composed of revolutionaries, and as a result, they know how to undermine the system,” says Bahari, who was imprisoned while covering Iran for Newsweek. “It’s a very, very sophisticated, conniving government.”

Last year, Gloria Chan helped found the Hong Kong-focused exile news site in the United Kingdom [CHUEN SUNG MA]

Reaching the people who most need uncensored information is hard: Many outlets are blocked from view in their target countries and rely on mirror sites, full copies of a website located at an alternative URL, to protect access to their reporting. That bandwidth costs money. Funding for mirrors — and defending websites against hacking — can be a challenge. Most startups fail, and exile media must also factor in the toxicity of being unable to advertise in the target country and serving an audience that can’t afford to subscribe or give — or fear to do so.


On top of all that: How do you even pay staff when the government uses spyware — and actual spies — to track you?


Meanwhile, journalists in exile struggle with personal challenges from the bureaucratic to the emotional: getting asylum or work visas; finding housing, to say nothing of a new job; language barriers; and lingering trauma. The JX Fund, a collaboration that includes RSF, was created to help exiled reporters with these hurdles, including via financial aid, workspace, equipment, and legal guidance.


And exile does not always promise safety.


In May 2021, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair civilian plane carrying opposition journalist Roman Protasevich from its Athens-Vilnius route. Once the plane landed, Protasevich was arrested and accused of inciting unrest. Washington Post writer and Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in Turkey in 2018. Even after death, reporters can remain targets: Iranian reporter Reza Haghighatnejad died of cancer in Berlin last year after an exile career with Radio Free Europe. When his body was repatriated for burial, it was stolen by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the outlet reported.


As exiled journalists grapple with reporting from far away, they’re also questioning the very nature of journalism: Katya Martynova, an exile editor from Moscow now working from Germany for DOXA, a youth-focused digital outlet that’s seen considerable growth since its founding in 2017, says that when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, “it [became] clear that being a journalist, especially in exile, is also to be an activist … If you are fighting [against] Putin’s propaganda … that’s also a political act.”


Under these circumstances, journalists around the globe are continuing their work against the greatest odds. But as The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who spent 544 days imprisoned in Iran, points out, they do have a unique edge. “What they do have is a connective tissue to things that are happening back in Iran or Afghanistan or whatever country that they come from that we don’t have, [that] we can’t replicate,” he says. “Without people like that, [we] wouldn’t have a real good understanding of any of the conflict zones or trouble spots around the world that matter so much.”


Here’s a look at just a few more of the exiled journalists and organizations around the world that are continuing to report on their home countries.


AFRICA

When the media in a free country covers a politician making a gaffe or falling ill, it’s fodder for highlight reels, roundtable discussions, and late-show bits. But when cameras caught South Sudan President Salva Kiir apparently wetting his pants at a road commissioning ceremony in late 2022, six state media employees were arrested.


Radio Tamazuj, an exile outlet covering South Sudan with employees scattered across Africa, was first to name the arrested journalists in its coverage of the incident, according to the station. It’s easy to understand why other outlets may have been more cautious about wading into the controversy: As pro-democracy nonprofit Freedom House has noted, while South Sudan’s constitution provides for press freedom, in practice, “The government censors, harasses, and arrests journalists, especially those who criticize it or report on corruption or sanctions.” RSF places South Sudan at 128 of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index.


Tamazuj, which means “blend” in Arabic, launched in 2011 and initially operated out of the South Sudanese capital, Juba. In 2015, the national security service shuttered the office, began interrogating the staff, and started to deport foreign national colleagues. “It was a way to silence us,” says the editor in chief, who does not disclose his identity or location publicly due to security concerns. “The government did not want us to report on human rights violations, corruption, conflict, [and] killings of innocent civilians.”


The staff left incrementally so as not to attract attention — and made a deliberate decision not to regroup in a single place to continue their work. Tamazuj now has 10 editors, plus clandestine stringers in South Sudan.


Radio is a vital way to reach people, the editor says: “[The] illiteracy rate in South Sudan is high,” and internet access is limited to big cities. “Radio, for the vulnerable people who live in the rural areas, is the only source of information.”


Radio Tamazuj broadcasts in English, Arabic, and South Sudan’s Juba Arabic dialect and last year claimed nearly 800,000 shortwave listeners and about 10 million page views. It also has more than 194,000 followers on Facebook and more than 42,000 on Twitter. The authorities have in the past blocked access to the Tamazuj site for “hostile” reporting, but broadcasts continued uninterrupted on shortwave radio.


Editorially, “​​We tend to look more for accountability stories,” such as a 2022 Tamazuj investigation showing how infighting had thwarted a $55 million USAID school-building project. It has also reported on teacher shortages, press repression — including self-censorship — and the slayings of dozens of church leaders. When other South Sudanese outlets think a story’s too hot to handle, they’ll send it to Tamazuj. People living in the country typically are not persecuted for listening to Tamazuj, but outlets run a risk if they take up Tamazuj’s standing offer to republish its work, he says.


The editor in chief operates out of a new home base in Africa. He tells few people what he does or why he is there. Radio Tamazuj, supported by international donors, doesn’t use bylines. Exile life has its psychological costs, he says, but it’s a duty: “Building a nation, you need an independent media that can inform people, can create a platform for citizens to participate in public discourse.”


Biniam Simon was working for state T.V. in Eritrea when he saw his chance for a second life.


He was in Japan for a video training seminar. At home, “I was in the front line for being targeted” in a country notorious for locking up reporters, he recalls. Any error, even a minor technical goof, could “be looked at like a political statement.” RSF ranks Eritrea’s press freedom at 179 of 180 — second only to North Korea. “Like all of Eritrean society, the media are subject to the whim of President Issayas Afeworki, a dictator responsible for crimes against humanity,” the group says. “There are no independent media outlets, and journalists have either fled the country or are in prison.”


In a plotline right out of a suspense movie, Simon escaped from the Tokyo airport and whatever fate awaited him in Eritrea, obtaining asylum in France. In 2009, Simon — formerly a well-known T.V. presenter — founded Radio Erena, or “Our Eritrea,” in Paris.


Deutsche Welle Akademie has estimated Erena’s audience at more than 500,000 — remarkable for a small exile station that covers a nation of less than four million. It broadcasts in Arabic and Tigrinya, and maintains a website with an English-language version. Erena currently broadcasts daily by shortwave and by Nilesat satellite. It also has a mobile app and a YouTube channel where its 56,000 followers can watch shows on news, culture, sports, music — even a sitcom.

After obtaining asylum in France, Biniam Simon, a former state TV presenter in Eritrea, founded Radio Erena in Paris in 2009 [SARA FARID]

Erena now has about 15 staffers spread out in countries like Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan, though the number fluctuates. “When they [relocate] to Europe or the U.S., they stop working until they settle,” Simon explains. At the beginning, he struggled to recruit fellow refugees; most weren’t willing to join, and all but a handful wrote under pseudonyms. “As soon as you left the country, the threat to the family is the first thing that comes to your mind,” he explains. As for listenership, “At the beginning it was really hard, because people went to prison if they are found listening to the radio. We had a lot of reports like that,” he says. “[But Erena] has become a household name. Everybody turns it on, so they cannot imprison the whole country.”


Erena has built its news operation by relying on sources and a network of informants who do not know each other to verify information. It multitasks with the realities of Eritrea in mind — including the lack of internet access. By some measures, its miniscule internet usage has actually decreased in recent years. “Shortwave is more effective, because it’s portable and people have the habit — especially in rural areas, people carry [a] small radio, and it works with batteries,” he says. In the cities and military posts, there’s more satellite access.


It’s easy for Simon to see the impact of his work on a country where information is so scarce. After Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi began hiring west Africans as mercenaries, Simon says, Black people in the country came under suspicion and threat: “People even started calling us from Eritrea to tell us, ‘I have a son. I have a daughter named this and this. Could you confirm if they’re okay?’” And, his outlet covered the Lampedusa tragedy, during which more than 360 Eritreans fleeing the dictatorship drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat caught fire. “We were the first to announce the victims’ names,” Simon recalls.


The Eritrean government is listening. “Everything we say here is transcribed by hand every day,” he says. How does he know? An ex-Ministry of Information worker is now one of his news editors.


The “government still has hundreds of thousands of followers. And these are the people I want to listen to me,” says Simon. “People should know that even speaking freely, even expressing your ideas, is like your birthright … [We’re] trying to explain what’s happening in the country, [and] what’s going on wrong, what’s going on right. You put everything there, and then people can decide what they want.”


ASIA

It’s been a turbulent road for Aung Zaw — and a long one. 2023 marks 30 years since he started covering his native Myanmar (which is also known as Burma) via The Irrawaddy, a magazine named for the nation’s greatest river. “I look back and I, [say], ‘Wow. We survived,’” he says. “You know, we started with a very humble, humble beginning.”


Zaw started the outlet with “maybe a few thousand baht” in Bangkok, Thailand, after being imprisoned and tortured in Myanmar for pro-democracy activities. Irrawaddy, which provides news in both English and Burmese, was first produced at a local copy shop and snail-mailed. The digital English version launched in 2000, and the Burmese version launched the next year.


The survival of The Irrawaddy is directly linked to the survival of its staff inside and outside Myanmar. RSF ranks the country at 176 of 180 in press freedom and says the head of the junta “openly promotes a policy of terror towards journalists” who don’t parrot the official line and regularly use imprisonment and torture to maintain control of the narrative. The Irrawaddy’s staff has moved from Zoom staff meetings to Signal calls out of security concerns. Staffers get training on digital safety — carrying a “clean” personal phone separate from a “dirty” work phone in case of detainment; constantly changing sim cards to avoid tracking; exercising caution about not only sources, but also neighbors and surroundings, even in exile.


When the country opened up (somewhat) in 2012, some staffers stayed in Thailand and others returned to Myanmar. “We went back to Burma and slowly started testing [a] one foot in, one foot out strategy,” says Zaw, who won the 2014 CPJ International Press Freedom Award. The relative freedom didn’t last: February 2021 brought a military coup — and plunged the nation back into profoundly hostile territory for journalists. Zaw had to leave again.


Today, The Irrawaddy pursues accountability reporting — including ongoing “junta crony” corruption coverage — with funding from international philanthropy and NGOs. The magazine has detailed how former generals, relatives, and pals of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing have been appointed to top ministerial roles, and how the junta “permitted the US-sanctioned Htoo Group, owned by a notorious arms dealer, to import over US$5.4 million worth of palm oil per month.”


There have been ups and downs. Donor fatigue has been an issue. Consultants might eye a paywall to generate cash, but “you want your country to be free, to [be] democratic … you have a mission,” he says. “You are not Fox News. You are not CNN, to commercialize your content.”


Working with a hybrid exile/in-country staff has other complexities, including emergency relocations and protection of non-editorial staff, like drivers and accountants who can be targeted because they know where other staffers live. To pay people, The Irrawaddy has turned to hundi, a centuries-old money transfer system that relies on trusted agents in multiple countries and leaves a minimal paper trail. “You cannot use the bank, [because the] regime follows the money,” Zaw says. “They [want] to know who are the donors, who are the funders, who are the investors. They are suspicious of everything foreign. And you can be accused of high treason if you receive money from abroad.”


Zaw says, along the Thai-Myanmar border, “We have more freedom [to talk to] rebels and insurgents, or [business] people … We have a huge migrant population from Burma living in Thailand [and] you get tons and tons of information from there.” While operating fully inside Burma isn’t currently possible, Zaw says he just couldn’t cover the country the same way from Europe or the U.S. Removed, but not too far, The Irrawaddy still has measures of both access and freedom.


“In spite of odds and challenges, we stick around because this is the best place to operate,” he adds. “You can get the real story from here.”


When Amu TV launched as a new exile outlet covering Afghanistan in August 2022, staff took their best guesses as to how many Twitter followers they might hope to rack up in a day.


“One of the colleagues said, ‘If we have 1,000, that would be a great achievement.’ I said yes — but to myself, I was saying, ‘Even if we get 500, that would be good,’” recalls co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Samiullah Mahdi. “The next day, in 24 hours, we had over 10,000 followers … I think [it’s] because of the need and the thirst among people for credible and reliable news.”

Samiullah Madhi, editor-in-chief of the Afghan exile outlet Amu TV, works out of the newsroom in Sterling, Virginia [MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ]

Before the fall of Kabul in 2021, Madhi was Afghanistan bureau chief of Radio Azadi, an arm of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He got out a day before the Taliban took the city. A few weeks later, in Istanbul, he met Lotfullah Najafizada, who was head of Tolonews, one of the most popular journalism operations in Afghanistan. They put their heads together about ways to preserve the free-media progress their country had made and keep covering the resurgence of the Taliban and threats to women, as well as business, culture, and sports. The Taliban taking over the country in August of 2021, “radically changed the media landscape. In the space of three months, 43% of Afghan media outlets disappeared,” says RSF, which ranks Afghanistan at 156 of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index. “Many subjects are still difficult for the media to cover in Afghanistan. Themes related to religion, the status of women and human rights in general are off limits.”


Amu TV launched with a multi-phase plan: Get established first with digital, build a studio in the U.S., and eventually move to satellite. (“TV is the number one medium in Afghanistan to access the people around the country,” says Mahdi.”) Today, Mahdi works from Amu headquarters near Washington, D.C.; Najafizada is in Toronto. The total staff of about 40 is split 50-50 inside and outside Afghanistan and presents the news in English, Farsi, and Pashto.


So far, about 75 percent of Amu’s audience is inside Afghanistan. It has pulled in more than 60,000 Twitter followers, 119,000 on Facebook, and around 15,000 on YouTube. It relies heavily on social media to develop reach. The D.C.-area studio completion and satellite debut are planned for Mar. 21 to coincide with the traditional New Year’s celebration of Nowruz.


Mahdi says “having access to real information, real people inside the country” through correspondents and informants is key. So is pairing that with an external team of editors “who are not influenced [by] the Taliban threatening their lives.” It’s especially evident on sensitive stories like Amu’s coverage of rape and civilian killings. Last year, Amu spoke to local Taliban officials and residents of Panjshir Province who confirmed details of a violent case in which a woman and her four daughters — the girls were ages 10 to 18 — who were beaten and raped by Taliban members. And Amu has set up a private internet portal where in-country correspondents can share information with Western-based editors. While Amu encourages reporters to remember “no story deserves [losing] your life,” the hybrid model allows the outlet to pursue stories “local media are not able to tackle anymore,” he says.


Amu TV, largely funded by NGOs, is also betting on some of the boldface names it’s recruited. Among these are News Manager Anisa Shaheed, an award-winning human rights reporter whom Mahdi calls a role model for the next generation of journalists, especially for young women trying to break into the business. There’s also Karim Amini, who appeared on Afghan screens for a decade as a field reporter and host, and Mujeeb Arez (and his 490,000 Instagram followers), a well-known television host.


Mahdi often emphasizes Amu has modest means compared to established foreign outlets. But “we know our country, [and] we know and feel the suffering,” he says. “That [gives] us a kind of access that international media would find it very difficult to have.”


LATIN AMERICA

Cristopher Mendoza has worked as a journalist with Onda Local since 2007 to cover Nicaragua, a nation with a long, violent history of press repression — and courageous independent journalists. “My specialty is the municipalities, the smaller areas and cities, outside the capitol,” he says. While power may have long been centered in Managua, the capital doesn’t represent the whole nation, so “it’s important to tell the stories of deep Nicaragua, of the other parts of the country.”


Regime authorities interrogated Mendoza, accusing him of money laundering and receiving money “in an inappropriate manner” on behalf of Nicaraguan investigative reporter Carlos Fernando Chamorro, founder of Confidencial and a scion of one of the country’s most notable political families. “They asked me questions about the independent journalists, who [they] were and why were they criticizing the Ortega-Murillo regime. And I explained that independent journalism questions power, that this is our job and our right, and it’s enshrined in the constitution,” Mendoza says.


His lawyer advised him to leave. Mendoza arrived in Costa Rica in September 2021 and applied for asylum, as have scores of other Nicaraguan journalists fearful for their lives. In Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, uncensored journalism is a crime, and the penalties for attempting it are brutally doled out by government and military raids, beatings, arrests, and harassment. RSF ranks Nicaragua at 160 of 180 in terms of press freedom, saying that “the few media outlets that still operate within the country, such as Radio Corporación or the Acción 10 newscast, avoid confronting the government for fear of reprisals.”


Onda Local, which launched in 2000 as a project of the Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicación under journalists Chamorro and Patricia Orozco, has struggled to keep informing Nicaraguans in the face of censorship — including getting suspended three times: “The ambition of the regime is to control everything that’s said,” Mendoza says. “But so far we have been able, through social media, through YouTube, through websites, to continue to supply reporting that can be seen inside Nicaragua.”


After being kicked off of live radio multiple times, Mendoza says, Onda Local (in English, “Local Wave”) has turned its focus to podcasting. Recent episodes have looked at the regime’s control over the nation’s audiovisual archive, human rights violations and torture under President Daniel Ortega, who was elected in 2006, and oppression of municipal autonomy. Recently, the outlet has also focused on migration and public safety, reporting on the families sundered by outmigration and the many perils of the journey. “Sometimes we can’t do everything on broadband, so we also do try to be creative [by] using WhatsApp distribution lists or bulletins distributed over email or other things like that,” he says.

Over decades, Onda Local built up sources to draw on — many of whom are also now in exile themselves, Mendoza says. The outlet also relies on help from human rights groups to document the situation in-country. To protect sources, it can modify voices or obscure faces in broadcasts.


Grants help fill the financial gaps left by limited commercial opportunities for Nicaraguan media. Additionally, Onda Local’s website promotes its offer of “production, recording and editing services for radio and video formats.” Compounding the money issue, it’s “practically impossible in Nicaragua to get contributions from inside, because the government enacted what they call a law of foreign agents. [Any] communications media or institution has to report any donations that it receives,” Mendoza explains. “People feel even inside the country that if they were to contribute, that they would be branded as traitors or foreign agents.”


To bring Nicaraguan journalists together wherever they are, Mendoza helped found the group Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua (in Spanish, PCIN) in 2018. “We were very badly hurt [because] of the repression [and] the murder of Angel Gahona,” a journalist gunned down while filming an anti-Ortega protest. “We needed to do something.” Five years later, there are more than 200 members of the group, which documents attacks on the press and offers safety training and advocacy.


Even if he can someday return to work in Nicaragua, “it’s never going to be easy. [Power] will always attempt to hide information, even if the dictatorship falls, [and] attempt to make difficult this task of independent journalism.”


Mexico has been labeled RSF’s deadliest country for journalists three years in a row. More than 150 journalists have been killed there since 2000, when Jonathan Cuevas first went into the news business. A decade later, he and his wife started what is now the Agency of Investigative Journalism (API) as a regional news service in his home state of Guerrero.

Cristopher Mendoza has worked as a journalist with Onda Local since 2007 to cover Nicaragua, a nation with a long, violent history of press repression [OSCAR NAVARETE]

API began to collect and investigate denuncios — complaintsfrom the people of Guerrero in three areas: opacity in the use of government resources, public employees abusing their positions, and links between government officials and organized crime. These investigations went over poorly with both the government and the gangs.


First came harassment through social media, followed by threats. “They put [out] messages saying that we had criminal records as domestic abusers of women,” Cuevas says. “[They] were trying to damage our public reputation so that people would no longer believe what we wrote.”


A friend passed along a warning: Organized crime wanted API to stop looking into the president, or else Cuevas would be accused of mob ties. He was threatened with death and dismemberment. He was followed. A criminal group menaced him for supposedly working with a rival crew.


When Cuevas reported the threats to the government, they offered relocation under the country’s human rights program. He held out as long as he could before accepting. “As journalists, what we most want to depend on is what we [can] see with our own eyes,” he says.


Now in Mexico City, “I can’t do any field work,” he says. “If I want to go to visit Guerrero, I need to request a permit.” To report from afar — much as in the case of exile outlets that leave their countries entirely — he has colleagues on the ground make photos and videos, asking them to get him phone numbers so he can interview the subjects directly as needed. In other cases, he gives his co-workers lines of questioning to further the reporting in areas he himself cannot enter. To fill in the investigatory gaps created by distance, Cuevas can also turn to online tools, such as the “national platform of transparency,” which gives access to Mexico’s public records.


Exile, even within the borders of Mexico, has exacted a financial toll on API Guerrero, Cuevas says. Some of the clients of his news service became targets of threats and extortion attempts and pulled back from business dealings with the agency, leaving a hole in the budget. While API retains about 10 collaborators within the state, he says, at least one quit because of delayed payments. He says it’s difficult to pinpoint the full scope of API’s audience, but the agency has about 400,000 followers on social media, primarily via a variety of Facebook pages, and currently provides news to approximately 20 written, radio, and digital media outlets — some via agency sales, and some via information-sharing partnerships.


Cuevas says he can’t remain under federal protection indefinitely, and he still gets threats. As a sort of insurance policy should something go wrong, he’s part of the Forbidden Stories SafeBox Network. Journalists under threat share their investigative materials so that if they’re kidnapped, jailed, or killed, other reporters can complete and disseminate their work, proving “killing the reporter won’t kill the story.” After Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot and killed at her Bengaluru home in 2017, more than 100 journalists from 30 outlets banded together to further her work on exposing “troll armies” that systematically weaponized disinformation for political gain. For years, dozens of journalists have worked on a seminal Forbidden Stories case, the Daphne Project, to both continue the anti-corruption work of Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia — and to investigate who was behind her murder in a car bombing.


Cuevas makes a point of speaking out about anti-press violence. “If you give in and are silenced, then you are forgotten. And then if something happens to you, you’ll die a silent death. At least by raising our voices, we can perhaps obligate the government to take some kind of action,” he says.


EASTERN EUROPE

Ales Yarashevich of the Belarusian Investigative Center has been working in exile since the summer of 2021, amid the arrest of journalists under the press crackdown of President Alexander Lukashenko. RSF reports that until Russia invaded Ukraine, Belarus carried the mantle of the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists and was ranked 153 of 180 in press freedom by the organization. “The Belarusian authorities systematically target journalists, who can be arrested, searched, sometimes assaulted and mistreated in prison,” RSF writes. Conditions for working press have worsened since 2020, when Lukashenko was re-elected for a sixth term in a vote denounced as rigged by his opposition at home and in the West, and which spurred widespread protests. Between 2020 and 2023, RSF counts close to 200 Belarusian journalists as having been imprisoned, many remaining in detention.


The center was founded in 2019 as a journalists’ collective, but officially took on the BIC name after leaving Belarus. Yarashevich relocated after authorities raided the studios of Belsat TV, arresting close colleagues of his, and searched his mother’s home. Now, BIC has about 50 workers, including journalists, cameramen, sound and video engineers, bookkeepers, and support staff.


The government last year declared BIC an “extremist” organization, says Yarashevich, who formerly worked for independent news agency BelaPAN, which has seen a handful of its top leaders sentenced to prison for high treason and tax evasion. Not only can journalists be locked up in penal colonies, but “it’s dangerous for people to be subscribed [to] our Telegram channel or our YouTube channel,” he says. “[If] they spread our information, it means they spread extremist information.”


Yarashevich currently works in Lithuania, although some of his colleagues are in Poland, Georgia, and elsewhere. They accept donations but are aware of the dangers individual supporters may face; its website specifically warns against donating to its work from inside Belarus and offers options to give via cryptocurrency and Patreon. The Center has a following of about 60,000 on YouTube, with smaller audiences on Telegram, Instagram, and Twitter.


The center, which also does economic analysis and fact-checking reporting, draws its power not only from its own staff but from the reach of journalistic networks such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Global Investigative Journalism Network, and the Shadow Diplomats project of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica.


Collaboration “gives us different possibilities. We can use different databases [and] order profiles for different companies and financial records,” says Yarashevich, who also worked on the Pandora Papers, the biggest investigative reporting project in history. Getting quotes from people inside the country is often a problem, as these sources (rightly) fear persecution, but there’s a rich field of experts to draw on internationally — including Belarusian natives in exile. Yarashevich still has contacts in Belarus and can use their information on background after communicating via secure channels.


While Yarashevich says BIC writes for a Belarusian audience, it’s hard to change things at home under the rule of Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. Where BIC has seen results, he says, is outside the country.


BIC joined forces with Delfi in Estonia and Latvia-based Re:Baltica to investigate how Belarusian oil exports to Estonia soared in 2021, despite E.U. sanctions and thanks to an oligarch known as “Lukashenko’s energy wallet.” After the stories hit, Estonia’s prime minister announced her nation would suspend the transit of all Belarusian oil products. In the U.K, BIC worked with The Guardian to expose how the son of a Russian billionaire with close ties to Lukashenko was linked to a lavish portfolio of London properties; the son was sanctioned.


“In Belarus, we have no influence on the government,” he says. “But here in Europe, the government and officials react.”


When Roman Anin started Important Stories, or IStories, in 2020, “we didn’t even consider ourselves as a media outlet,” he says. The original idea was to “publish in-depth investigations and reports every week, and share them with major media outlets both in Russia and abroad,” like Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, and more.


“We do our job while we can. When it becomes impossible, we’ll think about something else”— Roman Anin, IStories


As IStories dug deep, Anin became a target of interrogation and searches. Harassment is commonplace for Russian journalists, with many reports of arrests and questioning for covering anti-government and anti-war protests. More journalists have been murdered in Russia than anywhere else in Europe over the past 20 years, per RSF, and outlets that question the regime have been forced to shutter or relocate abroad. Anin left Russia in May 2021 and his team eventually followed. They’re now based in Prague, where Czech authorities have given special consideration to exiled journalists from Russia.


But with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, “Now we are not an investigative media outlet that publishes once a week, [but] a daily media outlet that is covering war on a daily basis,” he says. “We have reporters in Ukraine, we have freelancers in Russia, we have investigators in various countries, so we’re becoming bigger and bigger, and the audience is growing.”

​​In May of 2022, IStories had 184,000 followers on YouTube; less than a year later, that number had increased to 332,000. Now, “we really think that our mission as Russian journalists is [to] let people in Russia know the truth about the war, [because] people [are] getting information [from the] propaganda” the Kremlin spins to control the narrative while it blocks as many independent news outlets as possible.


Blocked in Russia at the outset of the war, IStories had to get creative. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the platforms that are still available in Russia?’” The answer was YouTube and Telegram. “So we decided to invest all our energy in these two platforms, and we started making more videos — even though we are not TV reporters,” Anin explains.


It worked: Some of the videos went viral — including one about the families of slain soldiers from the Siberian region of Buryatia, which was viewed by nearly seven million people. Another spotlighting the business dealings of Putin’s family via leaked documents drew more than 3.5 million views.


How many people are on the IStories team now, exactly? Anin won’t say.


“We are [an] ‘undesirable organization,’” a blacklist label under Russian law that opens up IStories staff to criminal prosecution. “Just admitting the fact that I head IStories, I can be sentenced to [six] years of prison. All my reporters [can] be sentenced to four years,” he says — “and any reader who reposts our stories can be sentenced to four years of prison as well.”


Anin says IStories pays dearly for Google storage to maintain a mirror website “reachable in Russia without VPN,” he says, but the traffic just doesn’t compare to their Telegram and YouTube audiences.

It accepts donations by credit card, Google Pay, crypto, and YouTube sponsorship, but refuses help from inside Russia, “primarily to ensure the safety of the donors themselves,” according to the website.


Anin doesn’t think he can return to a Russia ruled by Putin, and he’s not sure how IStories will evolve next — or even how long it will last. “Maybe next year, Russia will shut down the internet, and it’ll become impossible to reach the audience in the country. … We have no idea. [We] think only about tomorrow,” he says. “We do our job while we can. When it becomes impossible, we’ll think about something else.”

 

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