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Exile and Journalism in a Global Pandemic: Voices from the MDJ

After a three month-long state-mandated lockdown, a historian interviewed the staff members and exiled media professionals who respectively work and live at the Maison des Journalistes regarding the impact of the covid19 pandemic on their lives. While the personnel talked about their current preoccupations vis-à-vis asylum applications and press freedom in professional terms, the asylum-seeking journalists shared their own experiences of exile and journalism from a much more intimate perspective.

The association Maison des Journalistes (“House of Journalists” – from now on MDJ) promotes three connected missions: 1) welcoming and supporting asylum-seeking media professionals in France by providing them with free accommodation in Paris; 2) fostering a healthy, free, and diverse digital public sphere encouraging exiled journalists’ professional activity; 3) spreading awareness of press freedom violation in the world among the youth through public events in schools, universities, and prisons.

I started an internship at the MDJ on June 8, 2020. Only one week before my arrival, the personnel had come back to the office for the first time since March 13, 2020. During the previous long months of state-mandated lockdown, the working operations had changed: remote working had become the rule and the members of the staff could not assist journalists through in-person meetings.

The fourteen exiled journalists the MDJ welcomes and provide with living accommodations and legal support were slowly rediscovering the liberty of leaving their rooms, returning to French language or journalism classes, and walk through Paris without restrictions. [Editor’s Note: Journalists could freely move within the residence, though they were recommended to practice social distancing and spend most of their time in their rooms]

My internship, thus, began in a very particular moment of the association’s life. The personnel were in the process of adapting all activities to the sanitary norms required by the covid19 pandemic.

I am an historian and as such I am interested in change over time, in the search for evidence, and in the analysis of continuities and discontinuities around a specific event or question. As I gradually settled in the MDJ, I started asking myself whether since the outbreak of the pandemic the people who work and live at the MDJ have experienced profound changes in the way they interpret and interact with what surrounds them or not. More specifically, do the MDJ’s staff and journalists think differently of the MDJ as both association and residence as well as of the broad notions of journalism and exile? If so, why?

To find answers to my questions, in the period from June 22 to July 6 I interviewed three of the seven staff members and five of the fourteen exiled journalists who respectively work and live at the MDJ. While I asked the same questions to all interviewees, in the end each conversation was different in terms of intensity, duration, location, level of formality, language (English, French), means of communication (written, oral) and collection of data (note taking, sound recording). I evaluated that, as my priority was to put my interlocutor at ease, I needed to adapt the interview format to each person’s rhythm and personality.

No matter their position or background, all interviewees said that, on a logistical level, the lockdown brought about challenges that still endure. The waiting time for an asylum procedure has significantly increased because the French Office for Refugee and Stateless People’s buildings closed during the lockdown and are currently facing a backlog; exiled journalists’ search for jobs and affordable accommodations has become more difficult as a result of the current economic crisis, which affects the association’s funding too; the MDJ and its partners had to postpone or cancel all public meetings, conferences, and debates for safety reasons. The Summer break too contributes to such a climate of wait, suspension, and uncertainty, as in France schools, universities, and most public offices usually either close or reduce their operations in July and August.

In interviews, the staff members highlighted the new challenges they face professionally, while exiled journalists lingered instead on how they experienced the health crisis and its effect on their life from a much more intimate perspective.

On the one hand, the Director Darline Cothière, the Partnership & Fundraiser Officer Camille Peyssard-Miqueau, and the Social Inclusion Officer Antonin Tort are all concerned with the financial crisis and its negative effect on the funding of the MDJ.

As the MDJ’s principal sponsors – mostly French medias – suffer a deterioration of their finances, one of the main preoccupations of the association is to develop new partnerships and initiatives that will contribute to the economic support of the MDJ.

Resident journalists did not place the financial crisis at the core of their concerns. The lockdown disrupted their quotidian lives. What they experienced as a major change in their lives is their habits in France and in the MDJ residence.  Each journalist had to deal with new inquietudes and loss of references.

The Director Darline Cothière interpreted exilees’ individual condition in terms of either resilience or fragility, depending on each person’s aptitudes and life trajectories.

Individually, the lockdown has made all of us weaker: each person as a result of their own capacities and life trajectory. Now, exiled journalists are characterized by resilience. […] For them, the health crisis has not been a repression, rather one more difficult experience to handle. Some journalists, nevertheless, lived this challenge with much concern and anxiety, which is legitimate. Why? They already face wait and live a transition period from their past life to their future life. Uncertainty plays an important role in their anxiety and frustration: uncertainty about their refugee status, the pandemic like us all, but also welfare benefits, family reunification, and the search for jobs.

The journalists found themselves locked in the residence for months. They confronted each other’s anxieties, frustrations, and expectations regarding the MDJ’s response to the health crisis.

As a Kurdish exiled photographer from Iraq, Karzan obtained his political refugee status in France in 2019.

A few journalists felt abandoned during that period. According to the Director, such a reaction is natural and made of the MDJ a microcosm of society:

There was a group effect. All the individual frustrations contributed to creating a climate of generalized concern. Those who were not afraid too became anxious. The MDJ, just like society, developed a movement of collective revindication and questioned the institutions’ legitimacy. Such a crisis uncovered that some journalists had a certain view of the MDJ that did not correspond to its real missions. […] During the lockdown, the journalists shared the same place and talked about their own frustrations and expectations. In these confrontations, fake information on the MDJ started circulating like fake news! This episode gave us the opportunity to identify a communication problem between the personnel and the journalists, and thus to elaborate new solutions: to inform journalists on the powers and missions of the MDJ, to organize workshops and regular meetings. The lockdown was but an opportunity to identify a problem and strengthen communication.

Representation of exile by the Mexican exiled cartoonist Boligán.

The first thing that struck me about exiled journalists’ responses to my questions was that they kept telling me about their life before the exile or connected their present condition with previous experiences they had in their home country.

When talking about his understanding of the lockdown as a distortion of the intertwining of space and time, Mohammed explained:

My understanding of time and space comes from my experience. Not my experience of the past lockdown, but of the besiegement of Douma, my city. You know when they say that the eye needs to look at a distant object as to be stimulated and feel comfortable. I didn’t see a distant object for 7 years in Syria. The sight in Syria is exhausting for the eye. Kidnapping, bombing, arresting, jihad allowed only a close sight. For 7 years they tried all weapons you can imagine on us, and after 7 years when this same space was still a target of attacks the time was still not running. When I left Syria in 2018 I felt like it was 2012, there had been no passing of time. I left Syria and arrived in Turkey. In Turkey, I saw for the first time people paying by touch. For me it was the first time in 8 years to see more than 800 people gathering in a place. In the train station in Turkey, there were 500 people arriving and leaving, and I realized that the world is so much connected for the first time. The lockdown is somehow connected to that experience of besiegement. It’s very different too: the whole world was in lockdown at the same time. The only aspect of the current crisis to hurt me has been the inequality of the virus: the virus affects some people much more than others. Just like the war in Syria. This idea of space/time of mine comes from the besiegement of my city.

Mamadou had a similar attitude:

I experienced Ebola in Guinea Conakry, my country. Ebola was not contained in my country because of the bad quality of health services. However, a vaccine has been found and there have been reliable treatments in addition to the vaccine. Moreover, it was an epidemic, not a pandemic. This is the main difference compared to the coronavirus.

Drawing on fakenews and Covid19 by the French cartoonist Plantu. Exhibition organized by the City of Paris in occasion of "Un été particulier".

The second thing that struck me is that all the journalists expressed an ardor for journalism that far exceeded professional fulfillment.  For them, journalism is not just a profession, it is a life mission. Mamadou explained why he chose not to publish articles during the lockdown and what has concerned him the most since the outbreak of the pandemic:

A journalist is by definition someone who adapts to a new situation. With the health crisis I realized that journalists had the great responsibility of keeping the readership informed on what was going on in the world. Many journalists decided to report the brute data on the thousands of daily positive cases and deaths, and by doing so they contributed to giving articles a certain quality and thus to actively contributing to such a climate of anxiety. I did not write much because I saw that the news with the brute data on deaths added sadness and anxiety. Moreover, I realized that the fake news circulated a lot: there was a proliferation of fake information in countries like mine where the leadership does not give journalists the permission to get access to the information on the pandemic. This situation challenged journalists all over the world, not just in Guinea Conakry. It was one of the most important challenges faced by press freedom. Journalists could not freely go on the field to verify the quality of sources; they could not act as first-hand witnesses. I thus decided to engage myself in spreading awareness of the quality of the news rather than in the writing of articles.

Other journalists as well evoked fake news, lack of transparency, and journalists’ responsibilities in the current health crisis. Mohammed said:

During the lockdown fake news and tabloid news circulated more than before. For example, a friend of mine sent me a video of a supposedly coronavirus-infected person leaking a handrail in the metro. But of course there was no proof that this person did that during the pandemic, or that he was actually sick. In Syria, this kind of issues literally kills people. Do you know what happens if someone says that tomorrow there is no sugar or toilet paper in the stores in my city in Syria?

Maiirbek (Kazakh investigative reporter on Chinese concentration camps):

Because of the pandemic situation, I interacted less frequently with sources in China and Kazakhstan.

And an Egyptian video journalist who asked me to remain anonymous confessed to me:

I have been much worried for my family because there is no transparence and press freedom in Egypt, and you cannot know how the situation develops. I always contact my relatives and tell them to stay at home, while in Egypt the medias say that everything is fine. In Africa, in Egypt the situation is very critical because there are no developed hospitals. I am still much concerned. The situation gets worse, and the epidemic propagates.

Bilal is a Turkish caricaturist in exile as a result of his criticism of President Erdogan’s policy.

On the other hand, the five exiled journalists I interviewed were more willing to share their personal perspectives on the pandemic and its impact on the present and the future.

Mohammed (Syrian photojournalist at EPA.eu) described his perception of the lockdown in terms of space and time.

What makes speed is the intertwining of time and space. When space is static for a long period, time stops: speed decreases to almost zero.

“Lockdown: you lock your spirit in the down”, Mohammed told me.

What happened during the lockdown is that the stopping of time brought about weaknesses and an overall sense of depression at the MDJ:

During the lockdown, the 2h/day I spent with the other journalists were very sick, because of the difficult time. Journalists wouldn’t go to the gym, school, etc. and had a very negative attitude. By now, I am more aware about the limits and fragilities of anyone (including me). Another problem is that many people who had been in conflict areas have an attitude that relativizes the pandemic, like “we suffered a lot in our life, we don’t care about coronavirus”. When I talk to my friends in Syria, they don’t care. They say: “we will die, finally”.

Beyond the overall feelings of hopelessness, exiled journalists perceived and reacted to the lockdown in different ways. For example, both Adam (Chadian free-lance journalist) and Mamadou (free-lance journalist from Guinea Conakry) told me that, when the French government established the lockdown, the fourteen journalists abruptly distanced themselves, each isolating in their room. “This big family brutally distanced itself”, Mamadou said.

Yet, isolation had different meanings for the two. Adam faced unbearable boredom and learned to be patient.

Mamadou, conversely, told me that he and other journalists experienced a deep lack of self-confidence as from one day to the other their advisors (professional, legal, academic) were not available to support them. As his university professors could not instruct him in person on his thesis, Mamadou was forced to work on his own. This gave him the opportunity to gain self-confidence and a renewed sense of responsibility:

We used to see people, have open doors. I loved to stop by the personnel’s offices and say “hello” every morning. We found ourselves without any service, which gave us new responsibilities. […] Among journalists, before the lockdown, we didn’t need each other. The lockdown solidified solidarity. We helped each other with our new responsibilities, for example I helped a fellow journalist write e-mails in French. […] I feel like I am more independent than before because I work on my own and don’t need the approval or advice of my professors. I learned that I can be alone and work confidently.

Both Adam and Mamadou felt “united from a distance”, in Adam’s words, but in such a distance each found different teachings.

Mohammed’s experience of the lockdown was still different and corresponded to what the Director of the MDJ calls the “resilience” of political refugees:

Being in exile, which I really don’t wish you to try, but imagine, in exile, everything is painful, and all suffering means nothing to me. It’s like a knife stabbed in your heart, you don’t care if a bee comes to bite you. You’ll have this poker face without any feeling, all your thought will be on your country. Exile is like a knife that prevents any needle to stab in you. It’s just a poker feeling, a poker face in the heart. If you drink coffee and you drink tea after, you won’t feel the taste of tea because the taste of coffee is too strong. For me the pandemic is a needle, because the government is on your side, people are on your side, there is a common enemy to fight. But I am always discriminated: I am accused to be affiliated with ISIS, I can’t speak French but people only speak in French to me, even the refugees here discriminate the refugees and only respect the French. In Arabic exile has a very bad meaning. It comes from the verb “push someone to leave”, the idea is of “forced displacement”. If you say it in Arabic you should cry.

Whereas the staff members talked to me only in professional terms, these answers suggest that exiled journalists did not distinguish between their professional and personal understandings of both the pandemic and the lockdown.

During the lockdown, Mamadou got upset about police controls on the mobility of people. The French state mandated that people could leave their home only for 1h/day within 1 km from their home and hold a signed self-certification that reported the exact time and reasons for the leaving. Exiles, Mamadou told me, are afraid of being asked for documents by the police each time they leave their shelter. The usual worry about being inspected, during the lockdown, became a constant fear for him. The police could ask anybody for documentation at any time, not in response to a particular instance. Such a climate of surveillance was a source of wide-spread anxiety among political refugees like Mamadou.

The following passage by Mohammed best exemplifies how exiled journalists made recurrent references to life before exile and journalism as a life mission. In midst of the lockdown, in mid-April, his press agency appointed him to take a picture of the 8 pm collective clapping, a daily ritual for people in France to show their gratitude for hospital workers from their window. That day, Mohammed was invested by similar feelings to those he experienced as a photojournalist in Syria:

Taking a picture is not just about the frame, the angle or perspective. I should care about the lightness and the time (and time and lightness are also connected). Once I had to take a picture of the 8pm clapping that included the Eiffel Tour. This reminded me of my time in Syria, when I took pictures during the suspension of the curfew, when I waited for safety moments to take pictures and go out from my shelters. Sometimes I just had one minute or just 40 seconds. I didn’t know where the bomb would come from, or my safety. I didn’t know how to take pictures, and from what angle, and with what lightness, because the rest of the day I was all the time in the shelter. I needed to build my time in the very short safety time. I was in the shelter, I received Whatsapp messages on what was going on, and then I would go out and take a picture of a bird, and then I would start hearing the noise of bombs and run to my shelter. So what happened during the lockdown was that I was assigned to take pictures of people who were clapping at 8pm, and I wanted to put the Eiffel Tower in the background. The clapping lasted only a few minutes, if not seconds. I had to go and take a picture. I found a woman on a balcony and I had the feeling that she would clap. I was afraid of taking pictures because I felt the pressure of the deadline. In one minute, I was able to take more than 300 takes, of which 5 good shots. It reminded me of when I was in Syria. I was back to the MDJ feeling just like when I went back to my shelter in Syria.

The exiled journalists that I interviewed do not envisage exile and journalism differently than they did before the outbreak of the pandemic and the lockdown. Rather, the crisis gave them the possibility to better understand their own identity of exiles as well as to confirm the importance of their action as journalists.

Picture by Mohammed of 8pm clapping with the Eiffel Tower in the background. April 2020. Courtesy of EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED BADRA.

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