The number of journalists around the world imprisoned by governments seeking to stifle critical reporting reached its highest level ever in 2021, according to an annual report compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
CPJ found that as of December 1, 293 journalists were imprisoned in 37 different countries, up from 280 in 2020. China was far and away the worst offender, holding 50 journalists prisoner. Other countries jailing large numbers of journalists included Myanmar, Egypt, Vietnam and Belarus.
Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, CPJ’s advocacy and communications director, told VOA there is a common theme across countries jailing journalists.
“There's been a demise in democracy and democratic principles globally pretty much in every area, not just press freedom,” she said. “In particular, authoritarian governments are portraying journalists as unfair liars and criminals. That narrative serves political polarization plaguing the world and is also a critical component in erosion of trust in the free and independent media worldwide.”
Kaiser said that authoritarian regimes have worked to pass new laws that allow them to target journalists, such as section 505A, a provision added to the penal code in Myanmar that prohibits vague acts like “causing fear.”
The CPJ census is meant to provide a snapshot in time. The count is of journalists in detention as of 12:01 a.m. on December 1. It does not account for journalists held for part of 2021 but released in advance of the census date.
CPJ released the report a day before the White House hosted a Democracy Summit, a virtual gathering of more than 100 nations that are, ostensibly, committed to the principles of democracy.
However, seven of the countries listed by the State Department as attendees are currently holding at least one journalist prisoner, according to CPJ. They are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria and the Philippines.
“We think that it's important to engage in dialogue with countries that are engaged in repressive behavior,” Kaiser said. She pointed out, however, that one of the key issues the Biden administration expects to address in the summit is the sustainability of a free and independent media. This puts the seven countries in direct conflict with one of the summit’s key objectives.
“If journalists are not able to report freely and independently, the sustainability of media is not a reachable goal,” Kaiser said.
This year is the first in which Hong Kong-based journalists are on the list, following the imposition of China’s new national security law in response to pro-democracy protests last year. The 50 journalists imprisoned in China include eight from Hong Kong, among them Jimmy Lai, founder of the Apple Daily newspaper and Next Digital. Lai won CPJ’s 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award.
On Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), published its own estimate of the number of Chinese journalists currently imprisoned by Beijing, putting the number much higher at 127. One factor contributing to the difference is that RSF counts non-professional journalists among the imprisoned.
Myanmar went from one imprisoned journalist in 2020 to 26 this year, according to CPJ. The sudden surge came after a military junta displaced the country’s democratically elected government in February. CPJ said its count significantly understates the extent of the repression of independent journalism in the country because a large number were released before the census date.
The civil war in Ethiopia has coincided with a large spike in the number of reporters jailed by the regime of Abiy Ahmed, the one-time political reformer. Ahmed’s government was holding nine journalists, making it the second-largest jailer of reporters in Africa, behind Eritrea, which held 16.
Brazen action by Belarus
One of the most brazen acts of repressing a journalist in years happened in 2021, when Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko scrambled fighter jets to force down a commercial airliner traveling through his country’s airspace.
His target was Raman Pratasevich, editor of the NEXTA-Live Telegram channel, who was on the flight and was arrested when the plane landed in Minsk. Pratasevich, whose outlet has millions of subscribers, had actively reported on protests after Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed presidential election, and had testified about repression in his home country.
Belarus nearly doubled the number of journalists it held in prison, with CPJ counting 19 this year, up from 10 in 2020.
With repression, an exodus
Some countries that had been near the top of the list in recent years have reduced the absolute number of journalists in jail, including Turkey, where the number of imprisoned reporters fell to 18 from 38 in 2020. Likewise, Saudi Arabia, after releasing 10 jailed journalists, had 14 in custody.
However, CPJ warned that the decline in the prison population in countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia is not unadulterated good news.
The extraordinary repression visited on journalists in both countries, including the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly conducted at the behest of the Saudi government, has driven many journalists into exile or out of the business altogether, making it unnecessary to jail them.
Dangers in America
The CPJ data doesn’t list any journalists in prison in the United States, Canada or Mexico. But information gathered by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, found that 57 journalists have been arrested or detained in the United States since the beginning of the year.
This year’s number is far below the 142 arrested last year, mostly during a summer of large Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the Press Freedom Tracker, said the 2021 figure remained far above the norm for the years prior to 2020. Most of the arrests, she said, take place in the context of protests, typical when police “kettle” large numbers of people in order to conduct mass arrests.
“Protests have always been dangerous places for journalists,” she said. That's where you see kettles from law enforcement … and they're more dangerous, certainly, for assaults, be they targeted or not.”
VOA emailed the International Association of Chiefs of Police for comment but received no reply.
The tracker also documented 141 assaults on journalists in the U.S. this year.