By Vivienne Francis
As Zaher al-Shurqat left his office in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, he was confronted by a masked gunman. The 34 year-old Syrian was shot in the head at close range.
Miraculously he initially survived, but two days later died in hospital, on April 12, 2016. It was widely reported that it was the journalist’s outspoken commentary on the conflict in Aleppo that had cost him his life.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Shurqat is the tenth journalist to be killed so far this year. Dozens more have been seriously injured or imprisoned as they attempt to report with impartiality, truthfulness and criticality whilst living in authoritarian regimes or war zones.
For some, the risk to their lives and those of their loved ones becomes too much, and they are forced to flee for the safety of less oppressive countries.
The number of refugee journalists who have come to the UK is hard to quantify as accurate records do not exist, but many within the field believe that it is sizeable, and growing.
Dr Abel Ugba, from the University of East London says: “The first casualties of a conflict are the journalists. They need to escape, re-establish and continue their work. There has been no organisation or body to monitor the plight of journalists in exile, assess the numbers here, or to offer them support. There are more conflicts now in the world, so it makes sense that the number of exiled journalists is increasing.”
In their home countries many of the exiles have spent decades building up their careers and achieving national recognition as editors, TV anchors, chief reporters or senior feature writers.
Yet, when they arrive in the UK and attempt to continue their professional careers, the barriers numerous. Once they have navigated the complex asylum system and obtained the right to work, they discover that their professional credentials have little currency in the UK.
It has never been more important than now for refugee journalists to get their voices heard and to challenge the discourse and attitudes about migrants and refugees often portrayed in the mainstream media.
“You’re a journalist and you fled your country, and all you’re doing is security and other jobs,” says Mo, an exiled Gambian journalist. “You could be using your skills for the betterment of society as a whole. We need these refugee voices in the media. Using that expert knowledge, that’s where we come in as exiled journalists, who can work hand in glove with other journalists…in the UK.”
Research conducted by the Migrants Resource Centre in 2012 identified the widespread underemployment of skilled migrants.
It found a lack of networking skills and contacts played a major part in skilled migrants ending up in jobs that they are overqualified for.
In the same year, another study into migrant media workers in Europe (Italy, Greece, Ireland, UK, Poland and Netherlands) concluded that there were “many aspects of the recruitment process that could marginalise those outside of mainstream society”.
The Journalism team at London College of Communication has joined forces with a community group, the Migrants Resource Centre, to deliver a new project that seeks to tackle some of these barriers.
The core aims are to help refugee journalists become better connected within the UK industry; increase their confidence and update their journalistic skills; and encourage more of their voices within the media to help address the mainstream bias on migrant issues.
Ros Lucas, Chief Executive of the Migrants Resource Centre says: “It has never been more important than now for refugee journalists to get their voices heard and to challenge the discourse and attitudes about migrants and refugees often portrayed in the mainstream media. This partnership project will provide refugee journalists with opportunities to engage in the media.”
Over the course of the next 12 months, the project will deliver a series of workshops to 28 refugee journalists from Eritrea, Cuba, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh and Iraq.
The sessions, to be delivered at LCC, will focus on aspects like improving the participants’ awareness of the legislation that governs the UK’s media; exploring the concept of ethical reporting, using data tools for investigations, and becoming more familiar with the commissioning process. More general courses in English as a foreign language will also be held.
When I came here I had no problem with the Arabic media, but I need to push into the English media, it is important for us, but I need help to do this. With help, I am confident I can develop my abilities.
One of the central features of the project is the pairing of the refugees with leading journalists and media professionals. The lack of access to a network has been frequently cited as a barrier to their progress.
These volunteer mentors include The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley, who was named foreign affairs journalist of the year at the British Press Awards, and Neil Arun who was nominated for a European Press Prize for his work in the Balkans and Iraq.
In addition to this one-to-one relationship, the participants will benefit from having access to a wider community of project mentors comprised of journalists whose experience includes BBC, CNN, Vice, Channel 4 News, The Telegraph, New Statesman, Sky News, The Times, The Economist and Vanity Fair. The participants will also be offered industry placements and develop a platform for their work.
Yasser, who worked for 25 years as a journalist in Iran says: “When I came here I had no problem with the Arabic media, but I need to push into the English media, it is important for us, but I need help to do this. With help, I am confident I can develop my abilities.”
The project will also provide an opportunity for LCC’s students to work alongside the refugee journalists – enabling the undergraduates to gain a more transcultural awareness of journalism, and helping them to develop more interpersonal skills.
Running alongside the project will be a research strand that seeks to capture and explore the themes of universal values in journalism, and evaluate the role of media projects in migrant identity and progress in the UK. The project will conclude with a symposium on issues around migration and journalism in 2017.
The project has been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. For more information on the project, please visit: www.migrantjournalism.org
Featured image by Sara Furlanetto