Refuge for the Truth-Tellers: Inside the World’s Only Journalist Safe House

  • Share
  • Read Later

A correspondent for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel, identified as Medyan Dairieh, runs after being injured in the leg across a sniper corridor during heavy fighting in the Saif al-Dawla district of Aleppo, Aug. 24, 2012.

Nart Abdalkareem knew he was a marked man. For months the Syrian journalist had been shooting footage of massacres and bombed-out streets, and uploading it to al-Arabiyah Television, a channel based in Dubai, under the pseudonym Salam al-Hamui. But when the security police rounded up journalists late last year, Abdalkareem fled his home, and kept going, traveling to Jordan and finally to a city a galaxy away from Syria’s grim war: Paris. “I left with nothing,” says Abdalkareem, 39, sitting in the Maison des Journalistes in Paris, the world’s only safe house reserved for journalists fleeing their countries. “I left with no papers, no passport. Nothing,” he says. “The police had figured out who I was, and so I ran for my life.”

One year later, Abdalkareem is still reeling from the loss: His house in Damascus has been bombed, several friends are dead or in prison, and his work, for now, is over. Still, he is alive, and safe. And in 2012, that counts as good fortune.

Leaving aside the dozens of journalists killed this year—more than 60, in one of the deadliest years for journalists on record—there are dozens, too, like Abdalkareem, who have fled their countries, narrowly escaping imprisonment, torture or death. Having fled, their escape is often followed by years of legal limbo and deep isolation; about 50 or so journalists are known to have fled their countries this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, in New York.

Of those, the very lucky few have ended up in Paris’s Maison des Journalistes, a yellow-brick, former brush factory, which opened as a journalists’ sanctuary in 2002.

(MORE: The Crisis in Syria: No Immunity for Bystanders)

I first discovered this unique facility in July 2007, when one of my own translators fled his country—literally overnight. In a panicked call at dawn from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Allen Embalo, a journalist from the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, told me that he had escaped at a moment’s notice, after a diplomat warned him that he was about to be assassinated, in large part because of a TIME story I’d written one month before, using Embalo as a translator and guide, in which I described how the country’s officials were implicated in rampant cocaine trafficking. “The police were looking for whoever worked with the journalist as a fixer,” Embalo says. “Evidently it wasn’t very hard for them to find that it was me.”

Over breakfast in my apartment that morning in 2007, we called the French organization Reporters Without Borders, which within hours found Embalo a room at the Maison des Journalistes—a place I had never heard of—where he stayed for eight months, rent-free. Embalo still recalls the relief he felt walking into the “Maison” that day, and finding colleagues who instantly grasped the traumatic upheaval he was undergoing. “Going into exile is like jumping into nowhere,” he says. “And in the Maison we had brothers and sisters, colleagues with different cultures, different stories, different places in the world, all trying to build a new life in Paris.”

Founded by two French journalists, the Maison des Journalistes sits across the street from a cemetery in Paris’s 15th arrondissement, a block from the Seine. Despite its uniqueness, it is barely known even to its neighbors. With 14 bedrooms, it is funded by French TV networks and newspapers, and the City of Paris, on a tight budget of €350,000 a year. Although the residents sometimes include people from different political movements within the same country—there are currently three Syrians in the house—the director Darline Cothière says there are almost no political clashes; residents bond over common problems, chief among them their battle to gain political asylum in France. With reporters from countries as varied as Russia and Ethiopia, the staff is careful to stay politically neutral. “It is not our job to condemn abuses in their country,” says Cothière, who estimates about 250 people have lived there over the past decade. “We do that indirectly, but supporting freedom of the press.”

Besides free accommodation, which is usually for six months, the house offers French classes and legal advice, and a psychologist is on call to deal with the inevitable issue of post-traumatic stress disorder. In order to avoid guests slinking into isolation, the house keeps its only Internet connection in a large common room near the kitchen, making it the focal point for residents, who sit together for hours writing or chatting about their lives.

(MORE: On Austin Tice, And the Tug of War)

One recent evening, the room filled up with journalists from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Ethiopia, who shared their gripes about French bureaucracy, and tips about learning the language. Such communication, they say, feels like a lifeline while they attempt to adjust to a new country, and many still return frequently to the house years after they’ve moved out. “If it wasn’t for the Maison des Journalistes, how much more stress would there be in my life?” says Merid Estifanos, a well-known columnist from Ethiopia who fled that country in 2005, and has not lived in the Maison since 2007; sitting in the workroom, he says he comes every few days to use the Internet and socialize. He now lives in an overcrowded immigrant center, and says that if he dared return to Ethiopia, he would likely face years in jail, much like his former publisher, who was recently sentenced to 18 years. “I wasn’t planning to come to Paris,” he said. “But I was facing long years in prison or worse, death. I escaped for my life.”

Sadly, many others have not been as lucky—and 2012 could yet rank as the deadliest year for journalists on record. Of those killed so far, nearly half were in Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the worldwide total could rise to as high as 70 by Dec. 31, thanks in large part to the lethal job of covering the Syrian war.

There have been some well-known deaths, like that of the celebrated American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed alongside French photographer Rémi Ochlik last February in a rocket attack in Homs, Syria. But the vast majority killed in 2012—as every year—have been local journalists, who are unknown to the outside world, but whose work is crucial to Western media organizations, especially during a time of tight news budgets and growing concerns about dispatching staff to war zones. Compared to foreign correspondents, who return home after their assignments, “they are much more vulnerable,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Local journalists cannot go anywhere,” Simon says. “And the bad guys know where they live.”

Such was the motivation for the Maison des Journalistes, which remains the only sanctuary of its kind in the world; it always has a waiting list. In a measure of how hazardous journalism has become, the Maison is set to open two other branches soon, in Berlin, and Cadiz, Spain. And while dozens more journalists will no doubt be forced to flee, a handful make their way home—often out of frustration at trying to rebuild meaningful lives. “We’ve seen journalists go back to very dangerous environments,” says Simon, “because they couldn’t bear not to work as journalists.”

One such person is Embalo, my translator from Guinea Bissau. Late last year, he finally flew home, after determining that his life was no longer in danger; ironically, the country’s president had himself been assassinated since Embalo fled for his life. “I felt like the only place for me was back home,” he says. But for those journalists whose return could mean death, the Maison is, for now, the safest of havens.

MORE: The Freelancer as Martyr: Mika Yamamoto (1967–2012)