According to a 2023 prisoners census released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of 1st December last year the number of jailed journalists, 230, was the second highest on record since the census began in 1992. It is down from the previous year’s 363. Following the 7th October start of the Israel-Gaza war, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.
Meanwhile, according to the annual round-up of violence and abuses against journalists published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the total number of journalists detained worldwide in 2022 was a record 533. RSF has also said in its report that it has never previously seen so many women journalists in detention. There are 78 currently held, a record-breaking rise of nearly 30% compared to 2021. Women now account for almost 15% of detained journalists, compared to fewer than 7% five years ago.
The New York-based CPJ indicates that China tops the list, with 44 journalists in detention. Next come Myanmar with 43, Belarus with 28, Russia with 22, and Vietnam with 19, which makes Asia the region with the highest number of journalists in jail. Israel has 20 and Iran has 17. A large number of journalists remain locked up, undermining press freedom and, often, human rights.
Why are they behind bars?
Examining the charges that the journalists are faced with, the CPJ found that, globally, almost two-thirds of the journalists are behind bars for so-called “anti-state charges”, such as terrorism, false news, espionage, and others. It means that some countries regard journalists as an existential threat that has to be dealt with using national security legislation.
In some cases, the accusations may be justified, with CPJ saying it is impossible to assess the legitimacy of each case independently. However, it points to how governments increasingly regard information and the media as a part of the battlefield. That places journalists in the dangerous position of sometimes being unwitting combatants in often brutally violent struggles.
In their determination to smother independent voices and their efforts to silence political opponents and human rights activists and centralise control, some governments go a step further. They threaten and harass reporters beyond their borders and, in the case of Moscow, they also use intimidatory actions such as using arrest warrants for Russian journalists living in other countries. In May 2023, Ethiopia even forced the return of an exiled journalist, Gobeze Sisay, the YouTube-based broadcaster of The Voice of Amhara, after he was arrested in neighbouring Djibouti.
Sisay was transferred under unclear circumstances to Ethiopia to face terrorism charges alongside 50 co-defendants, three of whom were journalists. If convicted, he could meet the death penalty. At one time, he had joined a hunger strike to protest what detainees described as political persecution. As of late 2023, he was still in prison awaiting trial. He had been detained at least three times in two years.
In Tajikistan, independent media is throttled by state repression. It wasn’t always so. More than a decade ago, the country’s media environment was relatively diverse. It allowed for some criticism and debate as long as local media avoided reporting on the President and his extensive family. Now, according to the CPJ, the media people in Tajikistan are in their worst state since the violent years of the civil war.
Seven journalists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in retaliation for their work in 2022 and 2023. The United Nations Human Rights Council has criticised “the apparent use of anti-terrorism legislation to silence critical voices” and expressed concern about reports alleging that torture was used to obtain false confessions from prisoners.
CPJ’s research also shows that 168 (more than half of the jailed journalists) listed in the census face false news and anti-state charges such as terrorism in retaliation for their critical coverage. In 66 cases, those held have not yet been told of the charges they are facing.
China has long ranked as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, although censorship makes the exact number of journalists jailed there tricky to determine. Still, according to reports, in recent years, Beijing’s media crackdown has widened, and several journalists held at the time face ongoing delays in their cases.
Since 2021, the repression of journalists has also worsened dramatically in Myanmar and Belarus. In Myanmar, since the military coup in February 2021, the junta moved swiftly to devastate the independent media by arresting journalists, shutting news outlets, and forcing journalists into exile.
In Belarus, since 2020, authorities have jailed an increasing number of journalists for their work when mass protests over the disputed re-election of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko wracked the country. The majority – 71% – face anti-state charges; almost half serve sentences of five years or more.
Eritrea, with 16 journalists in jail, is the world’s eighth-worst jailer of journalists and the worst on the African continent. Those held in Eritrea include some of the longest known cases of journalists imprisoned around the world; none has ever been charged.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of journalists jailed on 1st December rose to 47, from 31 in 2022 and 30 in 2021, with Ethiopia (8) and Cameroon (6) ranking as the second- and third-worst in the region. Senegal, which has five journalists jailed, has only appeared on the census twice previously (2008 and 2022) with one jailed journalist in each of those years. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Angola, Burundi, and Nigeria all had one journalist listed in 2023, while Madagascar, appearing for the first time on the census, also held one jailed journalist.
Israel, that repeatedly argues it is the only democracy in the Middle East and the only one that respects media freedom, has appeared several times on the CPJ’s annual census. It previously had only one journalist behind bars but has now climbed to fifth place as it currently has the highest number of arrests of Palestinian journalists since the CPJ began documenting arrests. Since the Israel-Gaza war started on 7th October, journalists and media across the region have faced a hostile environment that has made reporting on the war exceptionally challenging. Overall, Israel has detained more than 20 journalists. Those released before 1st December or held after that date are not included in the 2023 census. They were all arrested in the Palestinian territory of the occupied West Bank.
Most journalists are held in administrative detention, which allows Israeli authorities to hold detainees without charge because they suspect the detainee is planning to commit a future offence. The CPJ says that the closed nature of these procedures has made it difficult for its researchers to learn of any accusations the journalists face, but relatives of the journalists’ families told the organisation that they believed that they were jailed for social media postings.
In addition to documenting the growing tally of journalists killed and injured, CPJ’s research has found multiple kinds of incidents of journalists getting targeted while carrying out their work in Israel and the two Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank. These include 25 arrests, as well as numerous assaults, threats, cyberattacks, and censorship. As of 24th January, CPJ’s records showed that 19 journalists were still behind bars.
Worst still, as of 24th January 2024, CPJ’s preliminary investigations showed at least 83 journalists and media workers – 76 Palestinian, 4 Israeli, and 3 Lebanese – were among the more than 26,000 killed in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel since the war began. Sixteen other journalists were reported injured, and three have been reported missing.