FRESH WAVES OF REPRESSION in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia sustained the global crackdown on press freedom in 2018 for the third consecutive year. In its annual global survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 251 journalists in jail in relation to their work.
The majority of those imprisoned globally 70 percent are facing anti state charges such as belonging to or aiding groups deemed by authorities as terrorist organizations. The number imprisoned on charges of false news rose to 28 globally, compared with nine just two years ago. Egypt jailed the most journalists on false news charges with 19, followed by Cameroon with four, Rwanda with three, and one each in China and Morocco.
The higher number of prisoners in China with 47 behind bars reflects the latest wave of persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region. At least 10 journalists in China were detained without charge, all of them in Xinjiang, where the United Nations has accused Beijing of mass surveillance and detention of up to a million people without trial.
In the highest profile example, Lu Guang, a freelance photographer and U.S. resident whose work on environmental and social issues in China has won awards from the World Press Photo Foundation and National Geographic, disappeared in Xinjiang in early November. Authorities later confirmed his arrest to his family, but have not disclosed his location or reason for detaining him.
MORE BROADLY, PRESIDENT XI Jinping has steadily increased his grip on power since taking office in 2013; this year, authorities stepped up regulation of technology that can bypass the country’s infamous firewall, issued lists of “approved” news outlets, and disbarred lawyers who represent jailed journalists, CPJ has found.
In Egypt, at least 25 journalists are in prison as the administration of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increasingly arrested journalists and added them to existing mass trials. Even after trial, Egyptian authorities go to transparently ridiculous lengths to keep critical journalists behind bars.
Saudi Arabia under intense scrutiny for the murder of exiled, critical Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate last October stepped up its repression of journalists at home, with at least 16 journalists behind bars on Dec. 1. The prisoners include four female journalists who wrote about women’s rights in the kingdom, including the ban on women driving that was lifted in June.
For the third consecutive year, every journalist imprisoned in Turkey is facing anti-state charges
Even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the fiercest critic of Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi, his government continued to jail more journalists than any other on the planet. CPJ found at least 68 journalists jailed for their work in Turkey, which is slightly lower than previous years. For the third consecutive year, every journalist imprisoned in Turkey is facing anti- state charges.
Those on the periphery of the journalistic profession are also vulnerable. CPJ’s list of jailed journalists does not include 13 staff from Gün Printing House, including its owner, a security guard, and several machine operators, who were jailed. Their “crime” is evidently printing Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, a pro-Kurdish daily paper that the government took over and eventually shut down.
IN THE UNITED STATES, where journalists encountered hostile rhetoric and fatal violence in 2018, no journalists were in jail on Dec. 1, although nine were arrested in the course of the year, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which CPJ is a partner. Furthermore, over the past year and half, CPJ has documented or assisted in the cases of at least seven foreign journalists seeking asylum in the United States because of work related threats at home, who were held in prolonged detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
CPJ defines journalists as people who cover the news or comment on public affairs in any media, including print, photographs, radio, television and online and includes only those journalists it has confirmed have been imprisoned in relation to their work.
The list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2018. Journalists remain on the list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody. The prison census accounts only for journalists in government custody and does not include those who have disappeared or are held captive by non state actors.
Other findings from CPJ’s prison census include:
- Ninety eight percent of jailed journalists are locals imprisoned by their own governments.
- 13 percent, or 33, of the jailed journalists are female, up from 8 percent last year.
- Freelancers accounted for 30 percent of jailed journalists, in line with recent years.
- Politics is the riskiest beat, followed by human rights. Those imprisoned for covering human rights including Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters in Myanmar sentenced to seven years each for violating the Official Secrets Act because of their work uncovering military atrocities in Rakhine state.
Elana Beiser is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.