The number of journalists imprisoned globally remains near a record high, according to an annual survey released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which identifies China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the world’s largest jailers of reporters.
“For the fourth consecutive year, hundreds of journalists are imprisoned globally as authoritarians like Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Mohammad bin Salman, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi show no signs of letting up on the critical media,” says CPJ’s 2019 Prison Census.
Although the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide slipped from 253 to 245 in 2019, the New York-based press freedom watchdog also says that journalists charged with reporting “false” or “fake news” continues to climb.
“The number charged with ‘false news’ rose to 30, compared with 28 last year,” says the report, explaining that the charge, most prolifically levied in Egypt, “has climbed steeply since 2012, when CPJ found only one journalist worldwide facing the allegation.”
“In the past year, repressive countries, including Russia and Singapore, have enacted laws criminalizing the publication of ‘fake news.’”
This year’s census marks the first time since 2015 that Turkey did not rank as the world’s largest jailer, in part because Ankara, “having stamped out virtually all independent reporting, released journalists awaiting trial or appeal.”
China — second only to Turkey as one of the world’s most repressive media environments for years — has 47 journalists in prison, the same number as it did in 2018, which largely resulted from reporters attempting to document large-scale persecution of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.
“In one recent Chinese case, Sophia Huang Xueqin, a freelancer who formerly worked as an investigative reporter at Chinese outlets, was arrested in October shortly after describing on her blog what it was like to march with the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong,” the report states.
Saudi Arabia, “where the number of journalists jailed has risen steadily since 2011,” the report states, is currently holding 26 reporters behind bars amid allegations of torture.
The growing number of arrests and documented abuse, say CPJ researchers, reflect a brutal crackdown on dissent under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. and UN officials blame for the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Istanbul.
The crown prince told CBS News’s “60 Minutes” in September accepted responsibility for Kashoggi’s murder, but denied that it was done on his order.
Most of the 26 reporters currently imprisoned in Egypt, CPJ reports, are prosecuted en masse, brought before a judge in groups, typically to face charges of terrorism and “fake news” reports.
Egyptian government officials, much like their counterparts in Turkey, China, Russian, and Iran, typically insist they target only reporters who aim to destabilize their respective countries.
CPJ’s 2019 census also says Iran saw an uptick of journalist incarcerations in 2019, as did Russia, which now has seven reporters in state custody.
“Of 38 journalists jailed in sub-Saharan Africa, the bulk remain in Eritrea, where most have not been heard from for nearly two decades,” the report says, adding that Cameroon has the second worst record of African nations, while evidence of free-speech safeguards are backsliding in Ethiopia and Nigeria.
Three journalists are jailed in the Americas, with incarcerations in Venezuela, Honduras, and Cuba.
“The highest number of journalists imprisoned in any year since CPJ began keeping track is 273 in 2016,” the report states. “After China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the worst jailers are Eritrea, Vietnam, and Iran.”
CPJ’s annual census does not account for disappeared journalists or those held by non-state actors. The survey accounts only for journalists in government custody as of 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2019.