For the second year in a row, the number of journalists imprisoned for their work hit a historical high, as the U.S. and other Western powers failed to pressure the world’s worst jailers–Turkey, China, and Egypt–into improving the bleak climate for press freedom.
A CPJ special report by Elana Beiser*
Published December 13, 2017 – The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit another new record in 2017, and for the second consecutive year more than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.
Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists. Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of “false news,” though modest, rose to a record 21.
In its annual prison census, CPJ found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, a new record after a historical high of 259 last year. The worst three jailers are responsible for jailing 134–or 51 percent–of the total. CPJ has been conducting an annual survey of journalists in jail since the early 1990s.
Despite releasing some journalists in 2017, Turkey remains the world’s worst jailer for the second consecutive year, with 73 journalists behind bars, compared with 81 last year. Dozens more still face trial, and fresh arrests take place regularly. In several other cases in Turkey, CPJ was unable to establish a link to journalism. Other press freedom groups using a different methodology have higher numbers. Every journalist CPJ found jailed for their work in Turkey is under investigation for, or charged with, anti-state crimes, as was true of last year’s census.
The crackdown on the Turkish press that began in early 2016 and accelerated after a failed coup attempt that July–which the government blamed on an alleged terrorist organization led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen–continued apace in 2017. Authorities accused some journalists of terrorist activity based solely on their alleged use of a messaging app, Bylock, or bank accounts at allegedly Gülenist institutions.
Because Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party was until recent years aligned with Gülen’s movement, the crackdown sometimes led to patently absurd circumstances. For example, prominent journalist Ahmet Şık was acquitted of terrorism charges in April after a six-year trial in which the defendants said they were victims of police and judicial officials linked to Gülen. Şık remained in jail, however, on fresh terror charges for allegedly being linked to Gülen, and many of the police officers, prosecutors, and judges who brought the original case found themselves accused of terror activity. Şık pointed out the contradiction in a lengthy statement to the court in July, saying, “In Turkey, some members of the judiciary have become the gravediggers of justice.”
Other cases blatantly demonstrated Turkish authorities’ brutal censorship tactics. On March 31, an Istanbul court ordered the release pending trial of at least 19 journalists jailed in the aftermath of the coup attempt, but the prosecutorappealed and the journalists were re-arrested before they left the jail. The judges who ordered their release were suspended.
Erdoğan’s government appeared to pay little price for its repressive tactics. In April, he narrowly won a referendum–amid procedural objections by the opposition that went unheeded–that will abolish the country’s parliamentary system and grant him sweeping powers. On the international stage, German officials including Chancellor Angela Merkel have repeatedly called for the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who works for the German newspaper Die Welt and who has been held without charge since February 14. But the NATO allies are bound by Turkey’s role in harboring Syrian refugees and other cooperation agreements. Trump, meanwhile, hosted Erdoğan at the White House in May and more recently praised him as a friend.
Also enjoying global standing is President Xi. In China, the number of journalists behind bars rose to 41 from 38 a year earlier. On a visit to Beijing in November, Trump made no public reference to human rights, despite an ongoing crackdown that has led to the arrests of Chinese journalists, activists, and lawyers. With tensions high between the U.S. and China’s neighbor North Korea, and Trump keen to renegotiate the trade balance with Beijing, “Trump seemed to signal areversal of roles: the United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around,” The New York Times wrote.
The visit came shortly after Xi tightened his grip on power at the Communist Party Congress, where his name was written into the Constitution and no successor was identified. According to news reports, analysts don’t expect improvement in human rights.
Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in July in a Chinese hospital, after receiving medical parole from prison a month earlier, casting doubt on whether he received proper care in custody. China refused Liu’s request to go overseas for treatment once he was released. The writer Yang Tongyan died in November under similar circumstances, shortly after release on medical parole with a serious brain tumor. Jailed in precarious health is Huang Qi, who has kidney disease and his lawyer told CPJ that authorities had halted his special diet and medical treatment.
More than half of the journalists imprisoned in Egypt, where the number in jail fell to 20 from 25 last year, are also in poor health. Among them is photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, who was arrested covering a violent dispersal of protesters by Egyptian security forces and has been in pretrial detention for more than four years. He and his 738 co-accused are charged with possessing weapons, illegal assembly, attempted murder, and murder, according to CPJ research. Shawkan is anemic and needs blood transfusions, but has been denied hospital care, according to his family. Of the 20 journalists in Egyptian jails, 12 have not been convicted or sentenced for any crime.
The prolonged imprisonment of Egyptian journalists comes as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi battles deadly extremism and high unemployment in the country, and as Cairo and Washington cooperate closely on security. Soon after el-Sisi met Trump at the White House in April, his government passed a draconian anti-terrorism law that furthered its crackdown on the press by, among other things, enabling authorities to put journalists acquitted of terrorism-related charges on a terror watch list that restricts their financial and other rights, according to news reports.
In Egypt and China, like Turkey, by far the most common type of charge against journalists is anti-state. Globally, 194 journalists, or 74 percent, are imprisoned on anti-state charges. Worldwide, CPJ has found that governments use broad and vaguely worded terror laws to intimidate critical journalists into silence. Legal provisions often conflate coverage of terrorist activity with condoning it.
Thirty-five journalists worldwide were jailed without any publicly disclosed charge. Lack of due process in some countries results in such a dearth of information that it’s nearly impossible for CPJ to determine what landed a journalist in jail, whether they have any health problems, and sometimes even whether they are alive. In places such as Eritrea and Syria, journalists who were last known to be in government custody have not been seen or heard from in years. All seven journalists in Syrian government jails have been there for at least four years, amid unconfirmed rumors of torture or execution. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the census to hold the government accountable for their whereabouts and well-being.
A change of government, however, may lead CPJ to reclassify a journalist’s status. In Gambia, where long-serving leader Yahya Jammeh was ousted in December 2016, the government of President Adama Barrow has expressed interest in determining what happened to reporter Chief Ebrima Manneh, who was arrested in 2006 but had not been seen since at least 2008. Jammeh and officials in his government made vague and contradictory statements about the journalist’s status over the years. In keeping with the family’s expectations, CPJ this year moved Manneh off the imprisoned census and on to its list of journalists killed in relation to their work.
Other findings from CPJ’s prison census include:
- Ninety-seven percent of jailed journalists are local.
- Of the total imprisoned worldwide, 22—or 8 percent—are female journalists.
- Freelancers account for 75 cases–or 29 percent.
- Politics is by far the most dangerous beat, covered by 87 percent of those jailed. Many journalists cover more than one beat.
- Countries appearing on the census for the first time in at least 12 months are Algeria, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Iraq, Morocco, Niger, Pakistan, Republic of Congo, Somalia, Uganda, and Ukraine.
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 groups, such as several Yemeni journalists CPJ believes to be held by the Ansar Allah movement, known as the Houthis. These cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.”
CPJ defines journalists as people who cover the news or comment on public affairs in media, including print, photographs, radio, television, and online. In its annual prison census, CPJ includes only those journalists who it has confirmed have been imprisoned in relation to their work.
CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. In the past year, CPJ advocacy contributed to the early release of at least 67 imprisoned journalists worldwide.
CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on December 1, 2017. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at https://cpj.org. Journalists remain on CPJ’s list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody.
*Elana Beiser is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked as an editor for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in New York, London, Brussels, Singapore, and Hong Kong.