Journalists who are forced to work in exile after fleeing repressive regimes are still not safe from their government’s efforts to silence them, a new report by Freedom House found.
Governments from 26 countries including China, Iran, Belarus and Saudi Arabia, committed more than 112 acts of transnational repression against journalists from 2014 to 2023, the DC-based nonprofit said in the report.
Authoritarian governments have intimidated journalists abroad with tactics including physical attacks, unlawful detentions, online harassment, threats against family members — exacerbating their precarious physical and economic conditions.
Even when journalists escape to democratic countries, their safety is not guaranteed. The 2021 stabbing of an outspoken Azerbaijani blogger living in France was allegedly ordered by the Azerbaijani government and resulted in high-level talks between the two countries. After being severely wounded in the attack, Mahammad Mirzali continued to face an onslaught of online threats that forced him to close his blog. Going after exiled journalists who tell the truth about autocracies is “the latest chapter in the growing authoritarian playbook,” said Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz.
Relentless online abuse often leads journalists to self-censor or limit their public appearances. Iranian reporters based in Europe and North America have faced death and rape threats for working with foreign media and have been subject to doxing. In China, which is responsible for more than a quarter of the cases of transnational repression, female reporters have had their personal information posted to escort sites. With journalists often powerless to identify anonymous online perpetrators, Freedom House has called on tech companies to provide special protections for those who are vulnerable — but this is not possible without the help of host governments.
Even democratic governments often fail to support journalists publicly, Jessica White, one of the report’s authors, told Semafor. Governments hosting exiled journalists should be transparent about the threats that such journalists are facing — a first step in ensuring autocracies are held accountable, White said. The Freedom House analyst also called out the U.S. for the lack of “meaningful accountability” over the Saudi-sanctioned assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a long-term resident of the U.S. The Biden administration’s “Khashoggi Ban” imposes visa restrictions against people who threaten or harm journalists on behalf of a foreign government, but rights activists have been outraged at Washington’s refusal to penalize Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the U.S. has continued to do business with Riyadh.