Criminalization of journalism is on the rise around the globe with a record 363 journalists jailed, according to data published Wednesday.
In its annual census of journalists jailed in retaliation for their work, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded its highest tally since it began compiling data in 1992. The 363 in jail as of midnight December 1 mark a 20% increase from last year, according to the report.
"Imprisonment is the most extreme manifestation of this trend, but it is not the only thing," Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director at CPJ, told VOA as he discussed the rise in arrests and attacks on media.
"Vaguely worded legislature" and new laws banning "fake news" have made journalism a punishable offense in some countries, while spyware and criminal defamation cases are used to silence and intimidate journalists, CPJ found.
The world's top jailer this year was Iran with 62 journalists behind bars, 24 of whom are women. The majority were arrested for covering the ongoing protests that began in late-September after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died while in state custody.
Iranian authorities have detained 71 journalists since protests began, but some of those were later released.
Journalists are among an estimated 18,000 citizens arrested during protests across Iran, according to numbers from the Human Rights Activists News Agency, a non-governmental organization in Iran.
"We have journalists [in Iran] who are bearing witness, who are exposing [the protests], and who are critical in making sure there are records of the event," de la Serna told VOA.
Among the women arrested in Iran are Niloofar Hamedi of the Shargh newspaper, and Elahe Mohammadi from the Hammihan newspaper. Hamedi was the first to report on Amini's death, while Mohammadi covered her funeral.
Both were detained in late September and are being held in Evin prison. They have been charged with "propaganda against the system and conspiracy to act against national security" — charges that could result in the death penalty.
Female journalists under arrest are at greater risk of abusive practices, said Kiran Nazish, founding director of The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ).
Her organization has spoken with lawyers for both male and female journalists in Iran who described the treatment of those in custody, including police and security guards sexually assaulting women.
Media arrests have turned Iran into "a black hole of sorts," Nazish said via email. Information is dwindling as it becomes more dangerous for journalists and activists to get information out of the country.
She said the CFWIJ has heard from many reporters in Iran, though, that journalism is not a job, it is a duty.
VOA reached out to Iran's mission at the U.N. for comment but did not receive a response.
Censorship and surveillance
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which uses a different methodology to CPJ in documenting cases, also registered record highs of both jailings and killings in 2022.
Among those imprisoned are freelancers who contributed to VOA, including two reporters in Vietnam and Sithu Aung Myint, who is serving three sentences totaling 12 years for his coverage of opposition to the military rule in Myanmar.
"Despite the questionable charges brought against these three individuals and the threats that our journalists face in Vietnam, Myanmar and the many other places where press freedom is in short supply, VOA remains committed to delivering accurate and objective news," a spokesperson for VOA public affairs said in a statement.
Asia as a continent had the highest number of journalists imprisoned — 119 this year. China, which topped CPJ's annual list over the past three years, was pushed into second place after Iran this year. Beijing is detaining 43 journalists.
"It's important to know the numbers in China are extremely hard to confirm, so we can assume that there are probably many cases that we don't know about," said de la Serna. CPJ cites media censorship and citizen surveillance as factors that make it difficult to gather information about arrests.
China's embassy did not immediately respond to VOA's request for comment.
Myanmar, a country that had zero journalists behind bars in 2020, ranked in the top three for the second consecutive year with 42 imprisoned, up from 26 last year.
The junta has repeatedly said it doesn't jail reporters for their work. But dozens of journalists have been arrested since the military coup in February 2021. Most are sentenced under amended laws against incitement and false news.
De la Serna said it's not only the numbers that tell the story, but it's also important to look at context and case-by-case specifics to gauge the impact of arrests on independent media within a country.
In Eritrea, for example, all 16 journalists on record have been imprisoned since the early 2000s. The journalists are denied access to family and lawyers, and they have been held for decades without trial, CPJ has found.
In Guatemala, a single journalist remains behind bars. De la Serna said the arrest is a high-profile case meant to send a message to others ahead of next year's election.
José Rubén Zamora, founder and president of the newspaper el Periódico, reported on alleged corruption involving the country's president and attorney general. Zamora has been charged with money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling.
Another alarming trend is the number of ethnic minorities imprisoned. In Turkey — fourth on this year's census with 40 behind bars — authorities detained 25 Kurdish journalists, most on terror-related charges.
CPJ's Turkish representative, Ozgur Ogret, told VOA that operations in Ankara and the city of Diyarbakir contributed to the country more than doubling from 18 journalists in jail in 2021 to 40 this year.
"These two investigations were almost as extensive as the operations carried out against the Kurdish press … in the early 2010s," Ogret noted. "There are concerns [in Diyarbakir] that the operations will continue during the election."
He added that those detained in June are still awaiting indictments.
Turkey's embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In Iran, nine of those arrested are Kurdish. All three of the journalists imprisoned in Iraq are from the northern Kurdistan region.
Journalists from VOA's sister networks, including contributors to Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Belarus, are among those behind bars.
"Reporting the news is not a crime," said USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett. The number of journalists behind bars "represents an indictment of the governments responsible for these cruelties," Bennett said in a statement to VOA. "These wrongs underscore the true power that unbiased news and information hold over the regimes who seek to hide it."
Hilmi Hacaloglu in Istanbul contributed to this story.