20 June 2011

Campaigns and Advocacy

IPI commemorates World Refugee Day 2011, journalists talk about life in exile

(IPI/IFEX) - 20 June 2011 - "The deep-rooted issues of discrimination and impunity [in Sri Lanka] have been allowed to continue unabated throughout the years. Those wishing to speak out against the practice and policies of the Government, in particular the media and journalists, have been subjected to intimidation, harassment, and threats to their lives."

This excerpt was part of a speech that activist and now exiled journalist Sunanda Deshapriya gave in front of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) during its special session on the deteriorating human rights and press freedom situation in Sri Lanka in late May 2009. The consequence of his words was almost immediate.

"I was branded a traitor to the nation by [the] highest authorities in the government for speaking at the Human Rights Council, and sections of the government even called for my death," Deshapriya told IPI, explaining that for an activist such threats do not come unexpected. "I had [already] been under constant threat and intimidation since the escalation of the war in late 2006 because of my role in press freedom campaigns in the country."

In 2009, after his speech in front of the UNHRC, a hate campaign was launched against him which eventually forced him to stay in Geneva.

Even though he already knew some people in Switzerland as a result of his human rights advocacy work, he admitted that he, too, had to go through the standard process of acquiring asylum, including a three-week stay in a refugee camp. His case was delayed several times, which Deshapriya explained was due to the fact that Switzerland makes no distinction between political asylum-seekers - like him - and asylum-seekers in general. Today, just over two years later, he is recognized as a legal refugee, enjoying the protection of his new home.

Accepting to live a life as a refugee might come with the benefit of safety and the opportunity to continue practicing journalism. However, there is also a cost.

"To become a refugee is not an easy option," Deshapriya said. "It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make in my life as an activist and I regret it every day."

When he decided to stay in Geneva, he was already somewhat familiar with the way of life in Europe, and yet he pointed out that "integration is difficult, especially for those who do not speak French, German, or Italian." If he had an option, he said he would have chosen South Asia as his home in exile.

For Myanmar journalist Soe Myint, founding member of the India-based information outlet Mizzima News, the choice to move into exile in another South Asian country was a logical one.

"Truly, I grew up in India politically," Myint told IPI. "Generally, the people of India . . . support the democratic movement in Burma. For me, India was a living school where I could learn a lot about Burma."

Myint was a final-year university student when a nation-wide student-led uprising against the dictatorial government in Myanmar broke out in 1988. He was taking photographs of the protest for a magazine of the student union, he recalled, when he was detained by the military. A month later, he decided to leave the country and joined the political movement of the Myanmar students, during which time he started working as a journalist for different regional media, and as a stringer for several overseas Myanmar radio stations. In 1998, together with two other Myanmar activists in India, he founded Mizzima News.

"Refugee life in India is very tough," Myint explained. "It is a daily struggle to survive – the survival to be able to function as an exiled Burmese journalist."

India is not an exception in this respect. Dr. Abel Ugba, originally from Nigeria and currently the chairperson of the Exiled Journalists' Network (EJN) in London, believes that refugee life can rarely be anything but a challenge. Some common social and cultural factors among countries might prove an advantage, he told IPI, but integration into mainstream society is never easy.

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