News / 20.01.2017

Finnish refugee policy would dampen free press in war-torn countries

By Linus Atarah In the wake of the refugee crisis, Finland has joined other European countries in tightening its refugee policy in order to turn back asylum seekers entering the country. A major concern however, is that its tightened asylum policy does not even consider journalists as targets in conflict zones and needing protection. Finland’s message to them is essentially, “Your fear is baseless: go back and stay quiet up or get killed. ” When Waleed Al Gburi an Iraqi journalist, arrived in Finland, he had hoped to breathe a sigh of relief. After several years of living in constant fear for life working as a fixer for foreign media, Waleed had to flee to Finland to seek asylum. But to his utter dismay his asylum application was turned down in the summer by the Finnish authorities, even though they did not discount his story or the evidence he provided to support his claim as false.  Waleed and many asylum-seeking journalists told their personal stories, some for the first time in public, in October at the Journalism Day in the Finnish capital Helsinki. The Journalism Day is organised bi-annually by the Union of Journalists in Finland (UJF) – bringing together hundreds of journalists, academics and media researchers to discuss trends in the media sector as well as global issues. In the past few years, Finland has received asylum seekers in drips and drabs. But last year, the upsurge in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, affected also Finland. Most of the 32, 500 asylum seekers were Iraqis but there were others from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. In an effort to curtail asylum seekers entering the country, the Finnish right-centrist-populist government quickly tightened its refugee policy early this year, with the stated intent of making the country less inviting to asylum seekers, as conceded by Interior Minister, Paula Risikko. Waleed was working as cameraman and fixer for French, Americans and Japanese media – since 2004. Such jobs are particularly risky, because the local journalist has to navigate through high-risk areas in order to acquire the needed information. Without them obtaining accurate information from war-torn countries would almost become impossible. Local journalists working with foreign media are often deliberately targeted by Iraqi militia because they are considered foreign allies. Waleed had received a warning from them in 2006, and was subsequently kidnapped and tortured. He provided video evidence to the gathering of journalists in Helsinki, of a failed attempt on his life when his car was damaged in a bomb attack. Even while away in Finland, his wife and kids have been forced to flee from their home due to constant threats from Iraqi militias Yet for journalists seeking asylum here because of the imminent danger they face due to their work, the Finnish authorities have one egregious advice for them: they would be safe if they return somewhere else in their home countries, and stop their work. This forms the backdrop to several journalists from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan being refused asylum this year. However, by this logic Habibi Hasmatullah has been placed between a rock and hard place. As a television and photojournalist from Afghanistan, he could not abandon his work with the private media and go over to work for the Taliban who had kept threatening to kill him unless he did so. For him the switch from private media to Taliban would have placed him on the cross hairs of the government, instead of the Taliban. Hasmatullah had no option but to seek refuge in Finland. He is still waiting for the outcome from the appeal to his asylum application that was turned down in the summer. Such a reason for turning away journalists has met with harsh criticisms from press freedom advocates here, who have pointed out the irony in the fact that Finland is ranked at the top of this year’s Reporters without Borders annual press freedom index and yet, seem to suggest that journalists from war-torn countries should go back and stay quiet up or get killed. The Union of Journalists has helped about a dozen asylum-seeking colleagues in their applications and appeals.

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