Threats, intimidation, arrest, prosecution, denial of permits, rejection of interview requests, seizure of equipment and deportation – such are the methods used by governments to obstruct media coverage of refugees. It is the 21st century’s biggest humanitarian crisis, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is examining
By Pauline Adès-Mével
La Repubblica journalist Alessandro Puglia never imagined the outcome of the investigative report he did on a migrant reception centre in Catania, Sicily. When he submitted his story, which included interviews with migrants describing how they were “treated like animals,” he thought it would it would lead to an investigation into the centre.
Although, the Italian judicial authorities did get involved, Puglia became their target, not the centre. The reporter who had exposed how the centre was flouting the most basic right of the migrants, is being prosecuted for defamation and has been insulted and threatened on social networks. The trial is scheduled for February 2019.
Puglia says the worst and most “unacceptable” aspect of this episode, has been encountering “a legal form of intimidation” designed to “discourage journalists from doing their work.”
In the Alpes-Maritimes region of southeastern France that borders Italy, reporters covering migration issues have to deal with another “legal form of intimidation,” this one by the police. “It’s the only story in which I have encountered so much harassment,” said photographer Laurent Carré although, as a regional correspondent for various French dailies including Libération, he often works on stories involving the police.
Carré has lost count of the number of times he has had to show his press card and assert his “right to be able to photograph” police and refugees together on the public highway “to police officers who tell me the contrary.” In January 2017, he was even manhandled and thrown to the ground by gendarmes who had just arrived in force at the home of Cédric Herrou, a farmer who is being prosecuted for helping migrants. On one occasion, a gendarme who recognized Carré told him: “Monsieur, I advise you to stop covering these stories because you’re going to have problems.”
Arrested while reporting
US reporter Spencer Wolff faced such problems. He had spent the past several months filming a documentary for The Guardian about residents in the Roya valley near the French and Italian border who help migrants, when he was arrested in June 2017 and spent 24 hours and 55 minutes in police custody on a charge of assisting illegal migrants. The gendarmes who arrested him were ones he had filmed a few weeks earlier while following some of the subjects of his documentary. “They knew full well that I was journalist but they interrogated me at length for information about Cédric Herrou,” he said.
Lisa Giachino, the editor of the monthly L’âge de Faire, spent ten hours in police custody after being arrested by the Frontier Police (PAF) as she accompanied six Eritrean minors in the Alpes-Maritimes region in January 2017. “The police didn’t dispute the fact that I was a journalist when they told me they were taking me into custody,” she wrote in an editorial. “Hundreds of soldiers, gendarmes, police officers and judicial officials have been deployed in Alpes-Maritimes to hunt for migrants and to harass those who help them and even those who just take an interest in them,” the editorial concluded.
Behind the official goal of breaking up migrant-smuggler networks, “there is clearly a desire to obstruct our reporting on the ground,” freelance journalist Raphaël Krafft said. Krafft has done many stories about migrants in the Mediterranean border town of Ventimiglia, on the refugeerescue boat Aquarius, in Alpine border passes and in the Briançon region, where he was arrested in December 2017 with Caroline Christinaz, a reporter for the Swiss daily Le Temps.
“But it is not just the police who prevent us from working,” Krafft added. “We are also blocked by municipal authorities and different state agencies that don’t respond to our requests.” In both France and Italy, he said, requests for interviews with officials directly involved in migrant issues or authorizing access to refugee camps are never successful. This is not new. As a participant in the “Open Access Now” campaign in 2012, RSF drew attention to the fact that reporters were being denied access to migrant detention centres almost everywhere in Europe.
“Our societies cannot dispense with media coverage of migration crises, which are now at the centre of the public debate in Europe and elsewhere,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Covering this story cannot be regarded as a crime. So why detain journalists, seize their equipment and deny them access to refugee detention camps? Governments have a duty and responsibility to not obstruct journalism on security grounds and not promote a rosy view of an often tragic reality.”
Reporting that shows basic rights being flouted
Reporting on migrants “challenges the authorities about the legality of what they are doing,” Krafft said. “Criminal abandonment, failing to assist persons in danger, refusing to recognize the rights of minors... they are very often on the edge of the law.”
This is also what reporter Claire Billet and photographer Olivier Jobard have found. They crossed six borders clandestinely in 2013 in order to cover the journey of five migrants from Kabul to Paris. The boat in which they were travelling was intercepted off Greece. Its motor was removed and then it was pushed back into Turkish waters. “If we had been identified as journalists, we would never have been able to see how the Greek coastguards turn back refugees en masse, which is illegal.”
When Billet and Jobard were subsequently spotted at the border by Turkish officials, they were arrested, fined, expelled and banned from returning to Turkey for two years. Their expulsion was carried out in a reasonable fashion. Four years later, after a dramatic decline in media freedom in Turkey in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt, Italian journalist Gabriele Del Grande ended up going on hunger strike in order to get out of the detention centre in which he had been held for two weeks after being arrested while covering refugees at Turkey’s border with Syria.
Restricting coverage of a shameful and inhumane reality
Outside Europe, the situation is even worse. At Agadez, in Niger, where the routes of migrants from Guinea, Nigeria, Mali and Sudan intersect, “first-hand reporting is impossible.” Even those with a press card are denied entry to the centre run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), although “we know that there are thousands of migrants living there in deplorable conditions, with barely enough to eat,” Radio Kaoucenmanager Ousmane Oumarou said.
In Libya, journalists are terrified nowadays when they go to migrant detention centres, which have been controlled by Libya’s militias since 2014. After a bureaucratic run-around for the necessary permits, they arrive at a centre where “the reality of the conditions inflicted on the migrants is clearly being disguised” and where they have to “film staged scenes at the militiamen’s behest,” RSF was told by a Libyan reporter, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
The reporters comply “out of fear of reprisals.” They film or stop filming on orders. In June 2015, the same reporter was “forced to cut short an interview with a migrant who was crying while describing inhuman detention conditions.” Last year, he watched helplessly as guards used force to prevent a pregnant woman from coming to talk to him.
The Pacific gulag’s information “black holes”
Thousands of people who have been detained while seeking an international refuge now languish far from cameras and microphones in government-run news and information “black holes.” After imposing offshore asylum processing and moving its detention centres to Pacific islands, Australia has managed to isolate these “Pacific gulags” from the media.
After letting Australia use a prison as a migrant detention centre, the small and remote Pacific island state of Nauru prevented media access by establishing a unique visa policy. The charge for a visa application runs as a high as 8,000 eurosand is not refundable even when the visa is denied, which is usually the case. And to further limit media attention the Nauruan government found another radical solution – blocking access to Facebook for three years.
Journalists are supposed to be banned from Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where Australia has its other main migrant detention centre. But one of the asylum seekers held there happens to be the Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been taking advantage of the limited and costly Internet access available to detainees to cover the reality and the consequences of Australia’s immigration policy since 2014. It’s from inside the centre, using Twitter, Facebook and the British press that this journalist has been describing the “slow agony” of the often “terrified” refugees who are the victims of this “sadistic prison system.”
Risky reporting from the inside
It can be dangerous for refugee journalists to cover the abusive treatment of their fellow refugees in the detention centres or camps into which they are crammed. Abdel Hafez al Houlani, a Syrian journalist from Homs who has been living in the refugee camp in Arsal, in eastern Lebanon, since 2015, was held and mistreated for six days after being arrested on 24 May of this year. When he acknowledged under interrogation that he ran the press office of the Union of Syrians for the Defence of Prisoners and was the Zaman Al Wasilnews website’s correspondent, and that he covered “anything to do with the Syrian refugees in the Arsal camp, including Lebanese army raids and the frequent arrests,” the insults by his interrogators redoubled. Since his release, he has been summoned for further questioning twice, he thinks he is being followed, and he fears for his life.
Minzayar Oo and HkunLat, two Burmese journalists who were covering the flight of several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh, feared the worst when the Bangladeshi authorities arrested them in September 2017 on suspicion of spreading “false information” and spying for Myanmar. The Bangladeshi suspicions were fuelled by the fact that Myanmar was not supposed to be letting its journalists cross the border and, even more so, by the fact that it did not want them writing about the atrocities that were driving the Rohingya exodus.
By intimidating journalists who cover the refugee story, some governments are not only seeking to conceal their violations of international humanitarian law but also to ensure that their questionable political decisions are ignored or can even be denied outright.