The Free Press: A Powerful, Vital Ally for Refugee Advocates

Freedom of the press, a crucial pillar safeguarding human rights during displacement crises, is under assault around the world. We here at Refugees International are concerned because a free press is often a vital and powerful ally to advocates for refugees. 

On World Press Freedom Day, it’s important to recognize that crackdowns on the press is a denial of a fundamental freedom, which can lead to greater abuses against the world’s most vulnerable people. Such abuses, said Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan when stepping down as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, can create “a situation where life and fear of the state become inseparable.” And when people are afraid, they usually flee. 

Almost 70 million people are on the move today—many of them displaced because of war, political conflict, climate change, or human rights abuses. Because a free press is vital to documenting refugees’ and migrants’ stories and the reasons they have been forced to flee, journalists are increasingly targeted and punished for their role in exposing governments’ mishandling and driving of such crises. For humanitarian organizations working to draw immediate attention to people displaced during humanitarian crises, a free press can serve as a key ally and the worldwide weakening of press freedoms should be cause for serious concern to anyone who cares about the fate of refugees and other people on the move. 

One recent example of this is in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, where the national government imposed oppressive restrictions on monitoring or accessing villages, and tried to conceal the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya-Muslim minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape horrific violence at the hands of the Myanmar military. After a bold effort to expose the corruption of Myanmar’s government, two Reuters investigative journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were framed and imprisoned for allegedly violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. Their reporting provided a rare insight into human rights abuses and atrocities committed by the Myanmar military, including a massacre of 10 Rohingya men. Buddhist Rakhine villagers and soldiers spoke to Reuters, confessing their part in acts of violence against Rohingya Muslims: “Buddhist villagers … confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.” While the documentation of these crimes provides an essential tool for the international community to push for the accountability of Myanmar’s military and government, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo remain imprisoned for their attempt to expose and hold accountable the Myanmar military and government. 

But when a free press can function properly, it can produce results that directly help refugees and displaced persons. For example, in January 2019, Refugees International saw firsthand how a healthy press can serve as an essential tool in advocating policy changes in Trinidad and Tobago, which does not have refugee or asylum legislation. Trinidad’s most prominent local newspapers, including Newsday and the Trinidad Express widely covered our report, Forced into Illegality: Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants in Trinidad and Tobago, immediately highlighting Refugees International’s findings and key policy recommendations to guarantee fundamental rights for displaced Venezuelans. Two days later, at a press conference, Trinidad’s Prime Minister Rowley said that his government would consider a policy to grant Venezuelans on the islands the right to work and to receive education—the very outcomes we advocated in our report.

Refugees International remained deeply engaged, issuing a statement of support and publicly writing to the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago advocating the implementation of the policy proposal. Finally, on April 4, the government approved a two-week registration period from May 31 to June 14, granting Venezuelans there the right to stay up to one year in Trinidad and Tobago and work. 

Having local journalists supplement our team’s findings and policy recommendations, asTrinidadian journalistswere able to do, is an effective means of informing and educating civil society and humanitarian organizations. Moreover, they can expose elected officials’ betrayal of human rights and create added public pressure on governments to respond to emerging or ongoing crises. That’s precisely why journalists are often targeted. Turning a blind eye or claiming ignorance is no longer an option; by meeting inaction with criticism, the press has the power to demand change by representing the consensus of refugees, migrants, civil society, INGOs, and the public. 

When journalists are attacked and silenced for their efforts to expose political and social corruption and the betrayal of human rights during humanitarian crises, advocacy suffers and our ability to elevate the voices of refugees and the displaced on a global platform is hindered. That is why we support press freedoms on World Press Freedom Day.