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A record number of journalists have been jailed worldwide in 2020

The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an advocacy group, has released its annual report showing the number of journalists imprisoned across the world.  At least 274 journalists were in jail as of December 1, up from 250 last year, the most since the New York-based group began collecting data in the early 1990s. According to the US-based media watchdog, an authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than just a temporary spike, accusing governments worldwide of suppressing the media and increasing misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This marks the fifth consecutive year that repressive governments have imprisoned at least 250 journalists. As of December 2020, China has jailed the most journalists for the second consecutive year with 47 reporters and journalists identified in prison. Authorities in China detained a Bloomberg staff member on December 11 on suspicion of endangering national security.

Turkey saw the second most journalists in custody, with 37 imprisoned this year. The country continues to try journalists free on parole and arrest new ones. CPJ found that the there is a decline in the statistics as compared to the previous years. However, it is not as positive as it seems and does not represent an improvement in the fortunes of Turkish media. Due to COVID-19, judicial proceedings were suspended for three months in 2020, prolonging prison for those in custody and anxiety for those free pending trial.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia also went to great lengths to keep journalists in custody while they were not convicted of any crime, with 27 jailed in each country. This year in Egypt at least three journalists were arrested for their work on COVID-19. Their only ‘crime’ was criticizing a lack of state media coverage of doctors and nurses who contracted the illness.

Protests and political tensions were the cause of many arrests, most of which took place in the above mentioned countries, according to CPJ’s annual report. A veteran journalist in Egypt was arrested on June 15 on charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news and misusing social media, after he criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including in a May 26 interview and June 14 column on Al-Jazeera.

In a statement, the CPJ’s Executive Director, Joel Simon said, “It’s shocking and appalling that we are seeing a record number of journalists imprisoned in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Not to mention that the number of journalists killed for their reporting nearly doubled in 2020, with 21 reporters slain as a direct result of their work according to the CPJ report. Of this number, Simon said, “It’s appalling that the murders of journalists have more than doubled in the last year, and this escalation represents a failure of the international community to confront the scourge of impunity.” Those responsible for their deaths include organized crime groups and corrupt politicians, to name a few. 

The report also blamed a lack of global leadership on democratic values, and in particular attacks on the media by the US President Donald Trump, which it said gave cover to authoritarians to crack down on media personnel in their own countries.

“The record number of journalists imprisoned around the world is President Trump’s press freedom legacy,” Simon said. As authoritarians leveraged Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to justify their own actions – particularly in Egypt – the number of journalists jailed on “false news” charges steadily increased.

Ironically, no journalists were in prison in the US as of December 1. However, 110 were arrested or criminally charged in 2020 and around 300 were assaulted, the majority by law enforcement, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker while covering demonstrations against police violence. At least 12 are still face criminal charges, some of which carry jail terms. Observers told CPJ that the polarized political climate in the country and a militarized law enforcement which has consistently encouraged vitriol toward the media caught on fire during a wave of protests this summer. Due to lack of trust from the US – the champion of human rights and supposed leader in Press Freedom – where President Donald Trump has inexhaustibly denigrated the press and cozied up to dictators instead of making sure that a truthful account of news reaches the masses, the global atmosphere of the press has been adversely affected.

Countries where the number of jailed journalists rose significantly include Belarus, where mass protests have ensued over the disputed re-election of the long-time president and Ethiopia, where political unrest has degenerated into armed conflict. At least two journalists died after contracting the coronavirus in custody there, the report said.

The report also found that two-thirds of imprisoned reporters were charged with anti-state crimes such as “terrorism” or membership of banned groups, while no charges were disclosed in nearly 20% of cases. This rising tide of censorship and self-censorship indicates a clear pattern pf stifling global dissent and activism as a means to maintain power and exploitation.

CPJ has published recommendations to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden for restoring US press freedom leadership globally, which include ensuring accountability for the domestic attacks on journalists as well as instructing diplomats abroad to attend trials of journalists and speak out in support of independent media. It also found the lack of trust in media in the US to be particularly dangerous during the global pandemic due to misreporting of facts and figures.

Media is known as the fourth estate in a democratic country. For a country to stand independently and to be able to maintain balance, it becomes important that this fourth estate is given the power, clarity, safety and authority it deserves, without the barriers of censorship.

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