The Spark talks to an exiled journalist living in Bristol and finds out about support for others in the same situation
For most of us in the West it’s hard to imagine being on the run because the government wants you dead, but for some people across the world it’s a daily reality. Journalists in numerous countries, for example, are assaulted and their families threatened with violence, simply because they have spoken out against injustice in a climate of fear and corruption; in short, they did their job well.
For Journalist Forward Maisokwadzo, this story is all too familiar. He took refuge in the UK when his life was threatened in his native Zimbabwe. He used to work for The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper but fled here in February 2002 after he was abducted.
He doesn’t go into detail about his harrowing ordeal and prefers to focus on how lucky he is to still be alive. “Journalism is small in Zimbabwe,” he says. “Everyone knows everyone and where you live.” A frightening thought and even more so when you have loved ones at home.
Forward is now officially an Asylum Seeker – an interesting label, given that the term ‘seeker’ intrinsically suggests that there is some element of choice involved. For Forward it was a huge sacrifice to leave his family behind. “It was hard because I was at the top of my profession in Zimbabwe,” he says.
Luckily, his wife was able to join him two months later and they’re now living in Bristol. “I was one of the lucky ones – I stayed with members of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) and they helped my case,” Forward recalls.
He does not think his experience is typical of most asylum seekers. “I’m getting many calls a day from journalists who’ve come from all over the world asking for my help. It is not easy for them.” Forward has had to become very familiar with the asylum system and the network of organisations involved in the process as he’s the co-ordinator for the Exiled Journalists Network (EJN), and communications officer for the Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Media (RAM) project.
Set up by Bristol-based media charity, Mediawise, and working out of the University of the West of England, the Exiled Journalists Network is the first of its kind in the world and has patrons such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist for the Independent. It provides advice, training, work opportunities and a valuable forum for exiled journalists to keep in touch with each other. It already has 17 registered members from Camaroon, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and other countries. It seems there is great demand for such a service in the UK as Forward says he knows of 200 such journalists here and estimates that there are probably more like 300. Being an offical body, the EJN can work towards making a real difference for journalists who would otherwise get sucked into the system and thrown out anywhere in the country with no real prospects or community. They plan to liaise with organisations such as The National Asylum Support Network and encourage them to house exiled journalists in Bristol where there is a support network in place for them. Forward knows of five exiled journalists living in the city so far.
Apart from giving direct support to journalists, the EJN and RAM projects also aim to raise awareness and change the situation in Europe for exiled journalists, who face years of indefinite unemployment and poverty under the surrent system. Their next big event, a conference focusing on Sri Lanka and bringing in international speakers, is planned for early September and will take place in London.
They’re also working to set up a safe house where persecuted journalists can get medical attention, respite and support. “We will probably start with it here in Bristol but we eventually aim to have it in London,” says Forward. Press Freedom House is modelled on Le Maison Des Journalistes that has been up and running in Paris since 2002.
So Forward has quite a lot to organise. He’s also studying for a Phd in Media and Poverty, chairs the Association of Zimbabwe Journalists in the UK and the Bristol Zimbabwe Association, and has two young children with his wife. When I ask him how much journalistic writing he does, he laughs. “When I can I like to write for The Guardian, but I have a lot of things to do. You can see I’m on my own here,” he says gesturing to his tiny office, which is the hub of such a massive, far-reaching project.
Written by Hannah Latham
First published issue 50 (Autumn 2007)
Details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.
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