New York, December 8, 2009—On December 1, a total of 25 journalists were imprisoned in Sub-Saharan Africa in retaliation for their journalism, and nearly 90 percent of these journalists were detained without charges in secret detention facilities, according to an annual census of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Countries as wide ranging as Eritrea, Iran, and the United States were on the list of nations who had imprisoned journalists without charge.
With at least 19 journalists behind bars, Eritrea by far leads the list of shame of African nations that imprison journalists. Eritrea holds this dubious distinction since 2001when the authorities abruptly closed the private press by arresting at least ten editors without charge or trial. The Eritrean government has refused to confirm if the detainees are still alive, even when unconfirmed online reports suggest that three journalists have died in detention. CPJ continues to list these journalists on its 2009 census as a means of holding the government responsible for their fates. In early 2009, the government arrested at least six more journalists from state media suspected of having provided information to news Web sites based outside the country.
Eritrea’s neighbor, Ethiopia ranked second among African nations with journalists in jail. Four journalists were held in Ethiopian prisons, including two Eritrean journalists who are detained in secret locations without any formal charges or legal proceedings since late 2006. The Gambia, with its incommunicado detention of reporter Ebrima Chief Manneh since July 2006, and Cameroon, which has imprisoned the editor of a newspaper since September 2008, completes the list of imprisoned journalists for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Worldwide, a total of 136 reporters, editors, and photojournalists were behind bars, an increase of 11 from the 2008 tally. The survey also found that freelancers now make up nearly 45 percent of all journalists jailed across the globe.
China continued to be the world’s worst jailer of journalists, a dishonor it has held for 11 consecutive years. Iran, Cuba, Eritrea, and Burma round out the top five jailers from among the 26 nations that imprison journalists. Each nation has persistently placed among the world’s worst in detaining journalists.
At least 60 freelance journalists are behind bars worldwide, nearly double the number from just three years ago. CPJ research shows the number of jailed freelancers has grown along with two trends: The Internet has enabled individual journalists to publish on their own, and some news organizations, watchful of costs, rely increasingly on freelancers rather than staffers for international coverage. Freelance journalists are especially vulnerable to imprisonment because they often do not have the legal and monetary support that news organizations can provide to staffers.
“The days when journalists went off on dangerous assignments knowing they had the full institutional weight of their media organizations behind them are receding into history,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Today, journalists on the front lines are increasingly working independently. The rise of online journalism has opened the door to a new generation of reporters, but it also means they are vulnerable.”
The number of online journalists in prison continued a decade-long rise, CPJ’s census found. At least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors are imprisoned, constituting half of all journalists now in jail. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 51 cases in 2009. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.
The number of journalists imprisoned in China has dropped over the past several years, but with 24 still behind bars the nation remains the world’s worst jailer of the press. Of those in jail in China, 22 are freelancers. The imprisoned include Dhondup Wangchen, a documentary filmmaker who was detained in 2008 after recording footage in Tibet and sending it to colleagues overseas. A 25-minute film titled “Jigdrel” (Leaving Fear Behind), produced from the footage, features ordinary Tibetans talking about their lives under Chinese rule. Officials in Xining, Qinghai province, charged the filmmaker with inciting separatism.
Most of those imprisoned in Iran, the world’s second-worst jailer, were swept up in the government’s post-election crackdown on dissent and the news media. Of those, about half are online journalists. They include Fariba Pajooh, a freelance reporter for online, newspaper, and radio outlets. Radio France International reported that she was charged with “propagating against the regime” and pressured to make a false confession.
“Not long ago, Iran boasted a vigorous and vital press community,” CPJ’s Simon added. “When the government cracked down on the print media, journalists migrated online and fueled the rise of the Farsi blogosphere. Today, many of Iran’s best journalists are in jail or in exile, and the public debate has been squelched alongside the pro-democracy movement.”
Cuba, the third-worst jailer, is holding 22 writers and editors in prison, all but two of whom were rounded up in Fidel Castro’s massive 2003 crackdown on the independent press. Many have seen their health deteriorate in inhumane and unsanitary prisons. The detainees include Normando Hernández González, who suffers from cardiovascular ailments and knee problems so severe that even standing is difficult. Hernández González was moved to a prison hospital in late October.
With Eritrea as the world’s fourth-worst jailer, Burma is the fifth with nine journalists behind bars. Those in custody include the video-journalist known publicly as “T,” who reported news for the Oslo-based media organization Democratic Voice of Burma and who helped film an award-winning international documentary, “Orphans of the Burmese Cyclone.” Journalism is so dangerous in Burma, one of the world’s most censored countries, that undercover reporters such as “T” are a crucial conduit to the world.
The Eurasian nations of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan placed sixth and seventh on CPJ’s dishonor roll. Uzbekistan is holding seven journalists, among them Dilmurod Saiid, a freelancer who exposed government agricultural abuses. Azerbaijan is jailing six reporters and editors, including investigative journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, a 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee. A seventh Azerbaijani journalist, Novruzali Mamedov died in state custody in August, after authorities denied him adequate medical care.
Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJ’s analysis:
- About 47 percent of journalists in the census are jailed under antistate charges such as sedition, divulging state secrets, and acting against national interests, CPJ found. Many of them are being held by the Chinese, Iranian, and Cuban governments.
- In about 12 percent of cases, governments have used a variety of charges unrelated to journalism to retaliate against critical writers, editors, and photojournalists. Such charges range from regulatory violations to drug possession. In the cases included in this census, CPJ has determined that the charges were most likely lodged in reprisal for the journalist’s work.
- Violations of censorship rules, the next most common charge, are applied in about 5 percent of cases. Charges of criminal defamation, reporting “false” news, and engaging in ethnic or religious “insult” constitute the other charges filed against journalists in the census.
- Internet and print journalists make up the bulk of the census. Radio journalists compose the next largest professional category, accounting for 7 percent of cases. Television journalists and documentary filmmakers each account for 3 percent.
- The worldwide tally of 136 reflects a 9 percent increase over 2008 and represents the third-highest number recorded by CPJ in the past decade. (The decade high came in 2002, when CPJ recorded 139 journalists in jail.)
- The United States, which is holding freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam without charge in Iraq, made CPJ’s list of countries jailing journalists for the sixth consecutive year. During this period, U.S. military authorities have jailed numerous journalists in Iraq—some for days, others for months at a time—without charge or due process. U.S. authorities appear to be using this tactic less frequently over the past two years.
CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. The organization has sent letters expressing its serious concerns to each country that has imprisoned a journalist. Over the past year, CPJ advocacy helped lead to the release of at least 45 imprisoned journalists.
CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2009. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at www.cpj.org. Journalists remain on CPJ’s list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody.
Journalists who either disappear or are abducted by nonstate entities, including criminal gangs, rebels, or militant groups, are not included on the imprisoned list. Their cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.”