A report from Reporters without Borders

AS MORE AND MORE women take up journalism, so too have women journalists increasingly been the victims of ruthless persecution by authoritarian regimes. According to a Reporters Without Borders tally, of the 334 journalists in prison at the end of February, 27 of them or 8 percent were women. Five years ago, only 3 percent of imprisoned journalists were women.

These women journalists are being held in nine countries. Iran and China are the two largest jailers of women journalists, with seven each. They are followed by Turkey which despite freeing the famous Kurdish journalist and artist Zehra Dogan recently continues to detain four other women journalists. Saudi Arabia is holding three women journalists, Vietnam two and Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Nicaragua are each holding one.

Although targeted by the authorities because of their articles or social network posts, women journalists are usually held on charges of “terrorist propaganda” or “membership of a terrorist group,” as in Turkey and Egypt, or for “suspicious contacts with foreign entities,” as in Saudi Arabia. Although vague and unsubstantiated, allegations of this kind are used to impose long jail terms.

For many, physical torture is compounded by the threat of rape and sexual harassment.

In Iran, journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and Paineveste blog editor Hengameh Shahidi were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in prison respectively on charges of “conspiring against national security and the Islamic Republic” and “insulting” the head of the judicial system. Roya Saberi Negad Nobakht, who has British and Iranian dual citizenship, initially received a 20 year prison sentence in 2014 for her Facebook posts. It was later reduced to five years.

Some countries have no reservations about imposing the longest possible prison terms in order to silence outspoken voices. This is the case in China. Gulmira Imin, a member of the Uyghur Muslim community and editor of the news website Salkin, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 on charges of “separatism” and “divulging state secrets.”

A well-known 74 year old journalist, Nazli Ilicak, received the same sentence in Turkey for taking part in a TV broadcast critical of the government on the eve of an abortive coup attempt in July 2016. She and two male colleagues, the Altan brothers, were sentenced to “aggravated” imprisonment for life, the harshest form of isolation, with no furloughs and no possibility of a pardon.

Women, like their male colleagues, are liable to be subjected to extremely harsh prison conditions. Lucía Pineda Ubau, the news director of the Nicaraguan TV news channel 100% Noticias, spent 41 days in Managua’s El Chipote high security prison before being transferred to a women’s prison at the end of December. The conditions in El Chipote, where the former Somoza family dictatorship used to torture its political prisoners, are “inhumane,” according to a Portuguese MEP who visited Pineda there.

Tran Thi Nga, a Vietnamese blogger who defended migrant workers, was held incommunicado for more than six months after her arrest, until finally sentenced to nine years in prison on a charge of “anti state propaganda” in a one day trial on July 25, 2017. She was denied phone calls and visits for nearly a year because she “refused to admit her guilt.”

Women are spared none of the worst forms of mistreatment. For many, physical torture is compounded by the threat of rape and sexual harassment. In China, Gulmira Imin was tortured and forced to sign documents without being able to see her lawyer.

According to the family of Shorouq Amjad Ahmed al Sayed, a young photo journalist arrested in Egypt on April 25, 2018, she was beaten unconscious, insulted and threatened with rape until the she made the confession sought by her interrogators namely, that she had created a website with the aim of endangering public order and belonged to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Six other women journalists are currently being held without trial in other parts of the world. In some cases, their families have lost all contact with them. In China, no one knows what has become of three women citizen journalists, Zhang Jixin, Qin Chao and Li Zhaoxlu, who were arrested in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively.

“Twenty seven woman journalists are currently deprived of their freedom because of what they wrote or because they spoke out courageously,” RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire says. “They are spared nothing. They are often the victims of disproportionate and iniquitous sentences. They are subjected to the most appalling prison conditions, like their male colleagues, and they are sometimes also tortured and harassed sexually. We call for their immediate release and we urge the United Nations to take up these cases.”