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Hamburg's Helping Hand for Human Rights

As the world celebrates Press Freedom Day on Monday, DW-World takes a look at a unique Hamburg organization offering support to journalists and others fighting for democracy and human rights.


Political activists like Maxwell Sibanda have found respite from oppression.

In Hamburg, Maxwell Sibanda is no longer oppressed. At home in Zimbabwe, he was an editor and co-founder of the Harare-based Daily News, a newspaper known for its critical stance towards President Robert Mugabe's internationally-shunned regime. Reporters from the paper were arrested arbitrarily, beaten up by ruling party supporters and prohibited from working as journalists. In September, after years of government harassment, the paper itself was finally banned.

A month later, Sibanda realized that it was the end of the road for the Daily News. "I could see that the paper wasn't going to be open again soon. And I decided to work in another media, and I could continue my fight to bring freedom to people in Zimbabwe," he told DW-WORLD.

Martina Bäurle

Martina Bäurle

The 35-year-old started to work as an arts consultant for a protest theater. He wasn't in acute danger, but he could have been anytime. That's what the German Embassy told Martina Bäurle (photo) when she inquired about Sibanda. "They said he deserved to get out," she said.

Bäurle is the one-woman-show who runs the Hamburg Foundation for the Politically Persecuted, an organization that invites people whose lives are in danger to spend a year in the northern German port town.

She's been in charge of the foundation for 13 of the 17 years since Hamburg's then mayor, Klaus von Dohnanyi, established it in the city's name. With the resistance against Nazi Germany in mind, Dohnanyi wanted to help people who were threatened by political persecution. The Hamburg Senate approved, and the foundation was created in 1986.

Free in Hamburg

Since then, 74 people from throughout the world have found sanctuary in Hamburg from oppressive situations at home. The foundation offers stipends to lawyers, authors, journalists and others whose work towards democracy and human rights has made them the targets of harassment, violence, imprisonment, kidnapping, legal action or even assassination attempts.

Based on recommendations from human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, the foundation prioritizes candidates for stipends according to the level of danger a person faces and whether he or she has any other source of help. After conferring with the German foreign ministry, it awards five stipends yearly.

The guests spend their time in Hamburg working on projects, lobbying for their causes or just recovering their strength and energy. Some of them -- around 20 percent -- have applied for political asylum at the end of their stay.

Helping hand

From public relations to decorating new homes to offering mental support, Bäurle does her best to take care of her charges. The city pays for the costs of the office and three stipends. Bäurle has to raise the rest of the funds to cover two more stipends and her own salary. A single stipend costs around €26,000 ($31,000), which includes a roundtrip ticket to Hamburg as well as living and working expenses.

It can be hard for the guests -- who frequently come from South America or Africa -- to get used to life in Hamburg, with its damp climate and reserved northern European culture. "The first three months are full of difficulties and often lack of orientation," Bäurle explained. "I try to soften their fall by having intense contact to them."

Language is a problem, since not one of the stipend-holders has yet known German. Two of the guests, a Columbian and an Iranian, actually broke off their stipends early and left Hamburg. "They missed the work at home," Bäurle said.

Lobbying a new audience

Sihem Bensedrine

Tunisian journalist and human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine

But others, like Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine (photo), have found being in Hamburg a boon.

"At first, Sihem said what am I doing in Germany?" Bäurle said. It made more sense for her to be in France, where the public was aware of Tunisian issues, she had plenty of contacts and language wasn't a problem.

However, German journalists have been almost constantly knocking on Bensedrine's door for interviews because, Bäurle explained, "there was a vacuum of information on Tunisia." Bensedrine's lobbying in Germany to expose the wide-spread human rights abuses in Tunisia, a popular German tourist destination, has the government there "fuming."

Maxwell Sibanda is also looking forward to being able to work on his projects in a free environment. He plans to finish a book he's been writing on the Zimbabwean government's use of music for propaganda and he wants to bring Zimbabwean protest singers and theater groups to Germany. Above all, he hopes he can attract greater attention to the dire human rights situation at home.

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