Fri, 22 Jan 2021

LONDON - Journalists who face persecution and violence should be granted emergency visas to help them find temporary safe havens, according to a prominent group of lawyers in Britain and Canada appointed to safeguard media freedom.

The High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, chaired by the former president of Britain's Supreme Court, David Neuberger, and the barrister Amal Clooney, is calling for the system of emergency visas as one of nine key recommendations. They have been endorsed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute.

Professor Can Yeginsu, a barrister in London who is a member of the panel and author of the report on emergency visas, explained to VOA why they were necessary to protect journalists in danger.

"What we're talking about here in the great majority of cases is journalists who are under immediate risk and need to move, often just temporarily, to safety until the risk against them dies down," Yeginsu told VOA. "Seeking safety at that point is the only way for those journalists to avoid a number of potentially very, very serious harms: kidnapping, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, violence, or even assassination."

Relocation isn't easy. Obtaining a visa for another country can take weeks and is often expensive, with no guarantee of acceptance. Those seeking political asylum must usually first arrive in their destination before applying, an impossibility for many journalists subject to persecution.

"The international framework for safe refuge isn't working for them," Yeginsu said.

Elisabeth Witchel, a former manager of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists' Emergencies Program - which aids journalists around the world in need of urgent protection - says they are often forced to seek alternative routes to safety.

"Often they are pushed to maybe flee to a neighboring country, maybe where the border is more porous. And the journeys are just difficult and dangerous," Witchel told VOA.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with eight killed this year. Francisco Robles is a freelance photographer based in the coastal city of Acapulco.

"In 2015, after suffering a direct attack where my work equipment was taken from me at gunpoint, I tried to take refuge in the first instance in a place near Acapulco. My second option was to leave the country," Robles wrote in an email to VOA.

Robles remained in Mexico and continues to file stories for a range of media outlets. He has seen numerous colleagues threatened and attacked.

"The emergency visas would help us to be able to leave the country if necessary. Comrades who are persecuted or threatened have to go to organizations like ARTICLE 19 or Reporters Without Borders to ask for help... since the agencies that are administered by the Mexican government are not enough to give aid," he said.

While welcoming the proposal, Robles believes emergency visas would have limitations.

"The emergency visas would help to save life in any risky situation in journalistic work. But they would only have to be for two or three months, since [the journalist] would have to return to the country to continue working and seek security, economy and emotional stability in the family that would remain unprotected during those months when seeking refuge in another country."

Safe refuge for media workers has been granted in the past, notes Witchel.

"For example, during the Iraq war in the mid-2000s, the [U.S.] government introduced visas for individuals including journalists who had ties to American companies because they were being targeted. So you see certain responses by governments, occasionally."

The panel of lawyers is calling for such a system of refuge to be formalized and rolled out among countries committed to the protection and promotion of media freedom.

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