Journalists-in-exile making news

They include those from countries where working as a truth-seeking reporter can be a dangerous proposition. They use the Web to report with impunity from afar.

Updated - November 21, 2011 03:01 am IST

Published - November 21, 2011 12:46 am IST

When news breaks in Nigeria, Omoyele Sowore is there. His Web news operation was the first to publish a photo of the Nigeria-born “underwear bomber” arrested in December 2009, and when a suicide bombing this summer shook a U.N. building in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, he was the first to publish on-the-ground reports and photos. During the presidential election in Nigeria in April, he published real-time photos, videos and reports from the field, exposing instances of ballot rigging, and attracting more than 8 million page views in one month.

Mr. Sowore, 40, is not based in Abuja, Lagos or anywhere nearby, but in a cluttered seventh-floor office in Manhattan. Armed with a laptop and a server, he has established his website, Sahara Reporters, as a major player in the Nigerian press, despite being 5,000 miles away.

Unable to return home

And he is only one of a growing number of New York-based journalists in exile taking advantage of cheap and easy Web-publishing technology, and the growing access in the developing world to the Web, to report with impunity from afar.

A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organisation devoted to promoting press freedom, counted at least 649 journalists from around the world forced into exile over the past decade, with 91 per cent unable to return home, and only 22 per cent able to work in their profession. These include reporters from dictatorships but also from democracies where working as a truth-seeking reporter can be a dangerous proposition.

‘Freedom after speech'

In Nigeria, “now that we have, so to speak, democracy, you would expect the media to be more vibrant, but the opposite is the case,” Mr. Sowore said in an interview. “It is not so much a problem of freedom of speech,” he said, “but freedom after speech. You can say a lot of things in Nigeria, but the question is: Will you still be a free person? Will you still be alive after you freely express yourself?”

Mr. Sowore grew up in a small village on the Niger River Delta where, he said, corrupt government officials reaped the benefits of the region's oil-rich land while doing little to improve the lives of its impoverished residents. That experience impelled him to become a leader of anti-government activists while a student at the University of Lagos, a position that he said resulted in his being harassed, abducted and ultimately tortured at the hands of the pro-government police.

Re-entry online

In 1999, he attended a peace conference at American University in Washington. Fellow activists recommended he seek help in the United States for the psychological after effects of torture, and one colleague put him in touch with the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, an initiative that helps victims rebuild their physical and mental health. He had planned to go back to Nigeria but doctors advised, for his mental health, against an immediate return. Instead, he sought political asylum in the U.S. and enrolled as a graduate student in public administration at Columbia University. Frustrated by his distance from his homeland, he soon realised that his re-entry into Nigerian political activism could come online.

“I have always been a lover of the media,” Mr. Sowore said, reminiscing about a comparatively robust news landscape when a military junta led Nigeria from 1983 to 1998. “These guys then were really daring. They would publish what they wanted, and weren't afraid of the military. The newspapers just refused to allow themselves to be proscribed.”

Elendu Reports

In 2004, Mr. Sowore and Jonathan Elendu, a fellow Nigerian exile based in Michigan, created an online publication called Elendu Reports. Mostly, they focussed on the questionable activities abroad of Nigerian politicians, publishing photographs of extravagant houses and luxury car collections allegedly bought with the spoils of corruption, and following paper trails to offshore accounts.

Back home, their exposes ignited widespread outrage. The domestic press may have been too intimidated to report on the rampant corruption, but by publishing the articles online from a base in New York, Mr. Sowore and Mr. Elendu were free of government-sponsored violence.

Meanwhile, rapidly spreading Internet access in Nigeria — the World Bank estimates Nigeria had nearly 44 million Internet users in 2009, up from fewer than 1 million in 2003 — helped them reach enough people that officials had no choice but to address the ensuing uproar. In several cases, the articles led to the arrests of prominent politicians.

“It just got bigger and bigger as we went along,” Mr. Sowore said. “People back in Nigeria thought we had some sort of wizardry, always finding these stories, but we were just following the money, and no one was able to stop us.”

Mr. Sowore said he had a falling out with Mr. Elendu in 2006. (Mr. Elendu could not be reached for comment.) Mr. Elendu continued with his site but Mr. Sowore soon started Sahara Reporters, named less for geography than to symbolise his desire to “kick up a storm across Nigeria,” from the basement of his home in Englewood, N.J. Using a network of contacts in the U.S. and in Nigeria, he continued to report on corruption but also expanded into breaking news.

Shielding reporters

Soon, reporters based in Lagos began to send him controversial dispatches that their own editors refused to print. Mr. Sowore is happy to publish them, shielding the reporters' names when necessary for their protection.

“Our reporters have a layer of protection they can't have in Nigeria, where the police can arrest you and harass you,” Mr. Sowore said. “They can't bomb our offices. They can't get the police to shut us down.”

In 2008, with financial support from the Ford Foundation and the Global Information Network, an independent, non-profit organisation focused on news from the developing world, Mr. Sowore moved his operation to Manhattan, although he also works from his home, his car, coffee shops or wherever he happens to be when a story breaks across the Atlantic.

‘Enormously difficult transition'

His workday often begins at midnight New York time, when Nigeria wakes up and he starts getting tips by phone and email.

In contrast to Mr. Sowore, “most journalists are unable to contribute from exile,” said Lonnie Isabel, director of the International Reporting Program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. “It's an enormously difficult transition,” he said. “There are language skills to learn, new technologies to deal with and many other barriers.”

To bolster the in-absentia press corps, Mr. Isabel helped found CUNY's International Journalist in Residence Program, a joint initiative with the Committee to Protect Journalists that gives one international reporter each year full access to the journalism school's resources.

CUNY's newest journalist in residence is Agnes Taile, 31, a reporter from Cameroon who spent several years writing about corruption and human rights abuses in the northern region of her country before death threats and run-ins with the police led her to leave in 2009. This year, she began Le Septentrion Info , a French-language website dedicated to news from that under-covered region. She hopes to soon expand the site and add an English version.

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an alumnus of the CUNY programme, worked for 10 years as a reporter and editor in Iran and was among the first journalists there to blog. In 2004, he was arrested and held in solitary confinement for two months, until he agreed to write a public confession saying he was a spy. In 2006, he left the country, ultimately landing in Brooklyn.

Use of proxy servers

Mr. Mirebrahimi's site, Iran dar Jahan (Iran in the World), features some original reporting but its primary mission is to translate international news reports about Iran into Persian, so that Iranian readers can get a sense of what the world press has to say about their country. Iran had 28 million Web users as of 2009, according to the World Bank, the most in the Middle East. And while the government blocks access to Iran dar Jahan , many Iranians are adept at using proxy servers to gain access to banned sites. Mr. Mirebrahimi, who was sentenced in absentia by an Iranian court to two years in prison and 84 lashes, said his site had about 70,000 visitors a month.

“It would be impossible to do this kind of work inside Iran,” he said. “New York has been a great place to work from, because there are so many resources here and because the community is so welcoming to immigrants from all over the world.”

Ultimate dream

Of course, the ultimate dream for each of these far-flung publishers is to set off enough political change back home that exiles like themselves will one day be safe to return.

“I certainly hope to be publishing Sahara Reporters in Nigeria someday,” Mr. Sowore said. “Part of what we are doing now is fighting for a space to be able to do this legitimately, building it to the point where it will be useless to fight us.”

— New York Times News Service

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