Features  Freedom of the press

Qaabata Boru illuminates the struggle for an autonomous refugee news source

Since October 2008, refugee journalists in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, have been involved in an arduous struggle to create the first fully independent, refugee-run news source with international reach through an online news blog.

Kakuma is a very small city located in the rift valley province of Lodwar district , 95 kilometres from Lokichoggio. Situated near the Sudanese border, the city houses refugees from many countries and its population is constantly fluctuating.

The founding journalists launched the publication with the intention that it would be owned by refugees – not edited by humanitarian staff – and that it would reach an international audience. The goal of the news forum was not merely to inform, but also to counter the monopoly of information enjoyed by humanitarian organizations that largely control access to and information about refugee camps.

As an alternative news source authored by the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian aid, the journalists believed a refugee free press could potentially open new spaces for public debate and action at Kakuma Refugee Camp, where there had been no media coverage since its establishment in 1991-92.

In collaboration with a U.S. Fulbright scholar, journalists developed an online news blog (kakuma.wordpress.com) titled the Kakuma News Reflector (KANERE). While only one KANERE journalist has experience as a professional reporter, several writers hold advanced university degrees in related fields, and others were studying journalism in their home countries before their degrees were interrupted by refugee flight. Together, the journalists established a monthly system, pooling their skills to investigate and report on events around the camp.

In April 2009, KANERE held elections for a new editor and an executive director, enabling a smooth transition of editorial duties. At the moment, I am serving as editor – I am an Ethiopian refugee and former second-year journalism student at Addis Ababa University. Jerome Sebwadaga – a Rwandan refugee, school teacher, and distance-learning university student – is serving as executive director.

The maiden issue of the Kakuma News Reflector was published online on December 22, 2008. The news blog soon attracted international attention and received thousands of hits from viewers around the globe. The unique venture was profiled in a number of reports by human rights organizations and news media, and was highlighted at the International Council of Voluntary Agencies conference in January 2009.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants hailed the free press an “invaluable resource” that “follows in the footsteps of many other civil and human rights efforts and empowers refugees to shape their own story and inform and organize their community.” The Currion named it an “unfiltered refugee voice,” and the Humanitarian Futures Programme called it “an absolutely fantastic example of citizen journalism, empowered by the web, completely changing the game of humanitarian business.”

Despite the positive feedback from the international community, the local United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency mandated to protect and support refugees, has hindered KANERE’s operational activities. The local UNHCR influenced local government authorities to block KANERE’s registration as a community-based organization because they feared the publication would expose the realities of the refugee camps – the prolonged suffering of the residents and the status of their human rights.

Soon after online publication of the first KANERE issue, it became clear that local humanitarian agencies did not fully support the refugee free press.

Local UNHCR officials cited concerns over confidentiality of information, protection of refugee identities, and ethical standards of reporting. In response to these concerns, KANERE deleted two sensitive articles from their first issue and ceased to use refugees’ real names or journalist bylines in their publication – though KANERE journalists wish to freely identity themselves.  It is clear that all international laws, including the Kenyan constitutional law, allow for the freedom of press, and for the realization and promotion of a refugee free press.

Tensions grew between the UNHCR and KANERE when the latter’s attempt to register as a community-based organization was halted by local government officials. The district officer confiscated KANERE’s registration forms and refused to release them until KANERE brought a letter of support from UNHCR.

The turning point in KANERE’s struggle for independence was marked by the arrival of a human rights lawyer, who, at the time, was the director of the Kenyan legal aid group Kituo Cha Sheria. At a joint meeting with KANERE and humanitarian agencies in February 2009, the lawyer affirmed that refugees have the right to a free press and cannot be prevented from exercising this right for any reason except those under law. He later summarized this position in an article for KANERE’s news blog.

At this meeting, humanitarian agencies resolved to support registration as a community-based organization while reaffirming their desire that KANERE be held to the highest standards of ethical reporting. At a subsequent meeting, a UNHCR official invited KANERE to submit a proposal for material assistance from UNHCR and Non-Governmental Organisations.

On August 7, I met briefly with UNHCR Director of the African Bureau George Obbo. A meeting followed with local UNHCR officials on August 13. At this meeting, it was made clear that humanitarian agencies will only offer support to KANERE if they are allowed to play a role in the news publication. In a letter written on behalf of Kakuma humanitarian agencies, the UNHCR Head of Sub-Office stated that it “cannot support the pure independence” of a free press that receives the support of “relief funds.” This means that KANERE will not be funded until there is some level of agreement between the two parties on the grounds of independence.

In accordance with typical international standards of freedom of the press, KANERE’s constitution states that it will not compromise its independence through “undue interference from authorities.” In refugee camps, humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, are the most influential and powerful authorities. According to the current KANERE editorial board, “We see that UNHCR will want to control our publication and cannot support KANERE’s independence.”

Although UNHCR officials have not stated in writing exactly how they intend to be “involved” in KANERE’s publications, in verbal discussions UNHCR officials have mentioned “editing our work” or “going through the articles” before making print copies available for distribution to the inhabitants of the Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kakuma town.

I am worried about the UNHCR’s desired involvement in KANERE’s publications. I would not like at any point to collaborate with a UNHCR that is going to restrict my work. I wish to work with a free mind, with a full consciousness, without restrictions of what to do and what not to do. However, there have been written documents from UNHCR but only verbal alerts.

The two parties have not had any subsequent meetings as per the previous schedule. KANERE is striving to maintain the highest integrity in continuing its operations.

KANERE has faced many challenges; journalists have faced threats when reporting and several have ceased reporting due to the strong opposition from the local authorities, especially the UNHCR. These former journalists left on the grounds of attempted arrests and the authorities’ lack of human compassion.

The UNHCR provides protection and a durable solution for refugees. Refugee journalists fear opposing the UNHCR, but their desire to struggle for a free press, under the laws, is stronger. KANERE is bound by the global laws that support the freedom of the refugees: international laws, humanitarian laws, international human rights law, Kenyan constitutional law.

The Kenyan constitution says, “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly and association, that is to say, that his right to assembly freely and association with other persons and in particular to form or belong to trade union or other association for the protection of his interest.”

The Refugee Act, 2006 also indicates this freedom at section 16, and it is incorporated in all the human rights treaties to which Kenya is a signatory to or which it has ratified. “So we do not, from any angle, understand where laws [oppose the] freedom of the refugees to speak out,” said a KANERE journalist.

KANERE cannot be shut down because it is an avenue through which we refugees of Kakuma camp can express our freedom, our feelings and experiences, our suffering, through which we can seek justice, and can move toward enjoying the rights inherent to all human beings.

A t this point, KANERE hovers in uncertainty. The publication has not been registered as a community-based organization with the Kenyan government. It appears that collaboration with local humanitarian agencies will not be possible unless KANERE agrees to their editorial interventions; at the same time, KANERE will not compromise its publication by allowing influence from parties that wish to censor its publications.

KANERE continues to operate independently with minimal resources and without material support from local agencies. This situation is rapidly becoming untenable. Journalists supply their own materials for writing and reporting. KANERE currently owns one laptop and one digital camera, but must rely on the refugee camp cybercafé for Internet access to maintain its blog. The journalists and I must pay for Internet use out of pocket, which severely limits our online activities. One digital camera means that journalists must juggle schedules to photograph events.

Print publication of the newsletter is nearly nonexistent due to lack of financial and material support from local humanitarian agencies. A few copies of the first issues have been printed and are available in tea rooms, the local refugee library, Kakuma town, and around the refugee camp, but access to resources for similar printing is now difficult.

Although local humanitarian agencies have refused to support the initiative, refugee communities strongly support the heart of the project. KANERE has met with the refugee community leaders on several occasions, and refugees appreciate that coverage of their situation is being exposed to the rest of the world.

While the operating costs of KANERE are low, KANERE has not yet received funding, making it very difficult to continue the publication.