Press release

NEW REPORT: Governments Are Escalating Transnational Repression to Silence Journalists around the World

Journalists living in exile face assault, harassment, and unlawful deportation at the hands of the governments they fled.

WASHINGTON—Authoritarian regimes are increasingly reaching beyond their borders to attack, intimidate, and detain journalists in an effort to control information and stamp out dissent, according to a new report released today by Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization.

The report, A Light That Cannot Be Extinguished: Exiled Journalism and Transnational Repression, finds that between 2014 and 2023 at least 112 acts of transnational repression were committed against journalists by 26 governments, including those of Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Physical attacks, unlawful deportations, detentions, renditions, digital harassment, and reprisals against family members are among the tactics authoritarian regimes use to pursue journalists working from exile.

“The latest chapter in the growing authoritarian playbook is to go after exiled journalists who tell the truth about a regime’s priorities, performance, and misdeeds,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Journalists are increasingly facing the threat of assassination, intimidation, and coercion, simply for doing their jobs.”    

The new analysis comes at a time when attacks on free and independent media are increasing globally, and more and more journalists are being forced to work from exile. The report is based on interviews with more than a dozen exiled reporters and reveals how transnational repression has impacted their lives and significantly hindered their crucial work. Exiled journalists live with the threat of physical harm, arrest, and kidnapping, which impedes their ability to travel, communicate with sources, and report on sensitive issues. Digital threats like cyberattacks, surveillance, doxing, and harassment affect their ability to reach their audiences. Meanwhile, smear campaigns undermine their credibility, and the intimidation of family members exacts a high psychological toll.

Extraterritorial threats also exacerbate the many practical and financial challenges of reporting from exile. Attempts by autocrats to silence exiled journalists can increase the costs of maintaining diaspora media outlets and create obstacles to resettling in a safe third country. These challenges include:

  • Complicating the immigration and asylum process: Criminal accusations made by origin-country authorities complicate already arduous immigration and asylum processes by forcing journalists seeking asylum to prove that they are not a security threat to the host country.
  • Creating obstacles to access financial resources: De-risking practices adopted by financial institutions can endanger journalists’ ability to access commercial services in exile. At least one Turkish journalist interviewed by Freedom House lost access to multiple US bank accounts, likely because of unfounded terrorism accusations against them in Turkey.
  • Skyrocketing costs to safeguard media outlets: Because of unrelenting attacks on their digital infrastructure, many exiled outlets must devote a large share of very limited resources to digital security.
  • Shrinking ways to generate revenue: In Russia, Belarus, and Iran, sources of revenue that once sustained independent outlets have been closed off by domestic legal crackdowns that make advertising sales and crowdfunding impossible. Meanwhile, international sanctions have impeded efforts to monetize online content.

“Democracies cannot stand by and let exiled journalists fend for themselves,” said Jessica White, the report’s coauthor and senior research analyst for media and democracy at Freedom House. “They need to do more to support and protect those who continue to defy censorship and shine a light on key issues in their home countries.”

The report provides recommendations that policymakers, civil society organizations, and tech companies can enact to support journalists targeted by transnational repression and increase accountability for perpetrators.

Recommendations include:

For Policymakers

  • Support exiled journalists and media outlets. Governments should emphasize that exiled media, due to their knowledge of closed countries and their contacts within them, are uniquely positioned to promote democracy and counter authoritarianism, and seek to work with like-minded states in developing multilateral measures for their protection. Endorsing the Media Freedom Coalition’s statement on transnational repression of journalists is a good basis for this approach.
  • Establish clear pathways for exiled journalists to receive permanent legal status in host countries. Host countries should consider appropriate mechanisms, including humanitarian visas, to help exiled journalists secure permanent legal status. Countries should also review their asylum and refugee processes to ensure that exiled journalists are not being denied legal status as a result of illegitimate criminal charges leveled against them.

For Civil Society and Media Organizations

  • Develop a plan to spread awareness of transnational repression among staff in newsrooms, so that outlets are better able to recognize incidents and respond to threats. Media organizations should hire security experts to monitor common tactics of transnational repression, increase protections against digital attacks, and handle immediate physical threats against journalists.
  • Invest in psychosocial support for journalists affected by transnational repression. Journalists covering diaspora issues and developments in their origin countries may be processing trauma, in addition to stress from targeting they face due to their work. Often separated from their families and close friends, journalists can benefit from counseling and community building in their host countries.

For Companies

  • Expand special protections and online safety settings for journalists who are vulnerable to transnational repression. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to organized smear campaigns, trolling, and doxing. Platforms should make it easier for them to efficiently filter out and report abuse and harassment.
  • Publicly identify the perpetrators, methods, and scale of digital transnational repression. Organizations should prioritize the safety of targeted individuals and assess the risks involved.

Click here to read the full report and policy recommendations.

A Light That Cannot Be Extinguished: Exiled Journalism and Transnational Repression is the latest in Freedom House’s ongoing effort to document cases of transnational repression around the world. In 2021, Freedom House released the first comprehensive global survey of transnational repression, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, and in subsequent years released the follow-up reports Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression, and Still Not Safe: Transnational Repression in 2022.

To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Maryam Iftikhar at [email protected].

Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.