The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual census of imprisoned reporters this weekend, and found China was once again the world’s worst jailer of journalists, followed closely by Myanmar, with Belarus in third place.
CPJ said those top three countries accounted for “more than a third of those incarcerated on the day of the census,” which was December 1. China jailed 44 journalists, Myanmar 43, and Belarus 28.
The report noted that China could be even worse than the census indicated because heavy censorship makes it difficult to determine exactly who has been jailed, but Beijing has clearly been on a widening “media crackdown since crushing the Hong Kong democracy movement of 2019 with a draconian “national security law” in 2020.
China’s methods have also shifted slightly toward a growing tendency to charge journalists with espionage or subversion, rather than “spreading fake news.” The report found that 19 of China’s 44 imprisoned journalists are from the oppressed Uyghur Muslim minority, against which China has been committing genocide since at least 2017.
China’s imprisoned journalists often face lengthy “pretrial detentions” that silence them long before they have a day in court. A prime example is Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who was jailed in Hong Kong for almost 1,100 days before his “trial” even started. Lai pleaded not guilty to sedition and collusion with foreign powers – charges created by the Hong Kong national security law – on January 2.
Myanmar almost caught up to China as a jailer of journalists thanks to the ruling junta’s war against independent media. Belarus likewise went on a reporter-jailing spree after protests erupted over the shady “re-election” of dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2020. Lukashenko put a twist on the authoritarian mania for accusing reporters of sedition by charging his opponents with “extremism” instead.
Russia and Vietnam rounded out the top five, while Israel (which CJP referred to as IOPT, or “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory”) was a new entry to the top ten.
“Israel has appeared several times on CPJ’s annual census, but this is the highest number of arrests of Palestinian journalists since CPJ began documenting arrests in 1992 and the first time Israel has ranked among the top six offenders,” the report said.
CPJ complained about the “closed nature” of Israel’s legal proceedings against Palestinian reporters, which “made it difficult for CPJ’s researchers to learn of accusations facing the journalists,” so they relied on comments from family members instead.
“Israel’s standing in CPJ’s 2023 prison census is evidence that a fundamental democratic norm – press freedom – is fraying as Israel exploits draconian methods to silence Palestinian journalists. This practice must stop,” said CPJ chief executive officer Jodie Ginsberg.
Israel has strongly disputed allegations that it targeted Palestinian journalists to silence media coverage, insisting that many of the “reporters” arrested or killed during the Gaza operation were actually Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) operatives. A British-based journalist named David Collier specifically accused CPJ of spreading Hamas propaganda by uncritically accepting lists of “journalists” from the terrorist organization who “were not connected to news gathering or reporting.”
In other findings, CJP’s annual report said Iran remains an oppressive environment for journalists, but the regime has jailed fewer of them since the height of the Mahsa Amini protests passed; Africa is getting worse, especially in conflict regions; and Russia has grown more aggressive at “trying to criminalize journalism beyond its borders by issuing arrest warrants and prison sentences in absentia.”
“Russia also holds a disproportionate number of foreign reporters in its jails. Twelve of the census’ global total of 17 non-local imprisoned journalists are held by Russia,” CPJ said, naming U.S. citizens Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal and Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Beyond the quantity of journalists imprisoned, CPJ also looked at the quality of detention and found China, Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, and Vietnam were engaging most prolifically in physically and sexually abusing their prisoners. Those governments hold many journalists with serious health issues in harsh conditions.
Egypt and Turkey, a former recent victor of “world’s worst jailer of journalists,” remain hostile environments for opposition journalism and CPJ said it was apprehensive about press freedom in India during elections later this year.
“Across the world, we have reached a critical moment. We need to see an end to the weaponization of laws that silence reporting and ensure journalists are free to report. During a banner election year, with billions headed to the polls across the world, anything less is a disservice to democracy and harms us all,” Ginsburg said.