For the second year in a row, the number of journalists imprisoned for their work hit a historical high, as the US and other Western powers failed to pressure the world’s worst jailers Turkey, China, and Egypt into improving the bleak climate for press freedom, said a report by New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Wednesday.
Written by Elana Beiser, editorial director of the CPJ, the report stated that the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit another new record in 2017, and for the second consecutive year more than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.
According to the report far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “At the same time, President Donald Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media ‘fake news’ serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists. Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of ‘false news,’ though modest, rose to a record 21.” added CPJ.
In its annual prison census, CPJ found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, a new record after a historical high of 259 last year. The worst three jailers are responsible for jailing 134–or 51 percent–of the total. CPJ has been conducting an annual survey of journalists in jail since the early 1990s.
Despite releasing some journalists in 2017, Turkey remains the world’s worst jailer for the second consecutive year, with 73 journalists behind bars, compared with 81 last year. Dozens more still face trial, and fresh arrests take place regularly. In several other cases in Turkey, CPJ was unable to establish a link to journalism. Other press freedom groups using a different methodology have higher numbers. Every journalist CPJ found jailed for their work in Turkey is under investigation for, or charged with, anti-state crimes, as was true of last year’s census.
Contradicting the CPJ’s census, according to the data compiled and well documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the SCF has showed that 256 journalists and media workers are in jails as of December 7, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 230 are arrested pending trial, only 26 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 135 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey. Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.
CPJ stated that the crackdown on the Turkish press that began in early 2016 and accelerated after a failed coup attempt that July–which the government blamed on an alleged “terrorist organisation” led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen–continued apace in 2017. Authorities accused some journalists of terrorist activity based solely on their alleged use of a messaging app, Bylock, or bank accounts at allegedly Gülenist institutions.
“Because Erdoğan’s ruling AKP was until recent years aligned with Gülen movement, the crackdown sometimes led to patently absurd circumstances,” said the report and added that “For example, prominent journalist Ahmet Şık was acquitted of terrorism charges in April after a six-year trial in which the defendants said they were victims of police and judicial officials linked to Gülen. Şık remained in jail, however, on fresh terror charges for allegedly being linked to Gülen, and many of the police officers, prosecutors, and judges who brought the original case found themselves accused of terror activity. Şık pointed out the contradiction in a lengthy statement to the court in July, saying, ‘In Turkey, some members of the judiciary have become the gravediggers of justice.'”
“Other cases blatantly demonstrated Turkish authorities’ brutal censorship tactics. On March 31, an İstanbul court ordered the release pending trial of at least 19 journalists jailed in the aftermath of the coup attempt, but the prosecutor appealed and the journalists were re-arrested before they left the jail. The judges who ordered their release were suspended,” reminded the CPJ.
CPJ said that Erdoğan’s government appeared to pay little price for its repressive tactics. In April, he narrowly won a referendum–amid procedural objections by the opposition that went unheeded–that will abolish the country’s parliamentary system and grant him sweeping powers. On the international stage, German officials including Chancellor Angela Merkel have repeatedly called for the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who works for the German newspaper Die Welt and who has been held without charge since February 14. But the NATO allies are bound by Turkey’s role in harboring Syrian refugees and other cooperation agreements. Trump, meanwhile, hosted Erdoğan at the White House in May and more recently praised him as a friend.
“In Egypt and China, like Turkey, by far the most common type of charge against journalists is anti-state. Globally, 194 journalists, or 74 percent, are imprisoned on anti-state charges,” said the report. Worldwide, CPJ has found that governments use broad and vaguely worded terror laws to intimidate critical journalists into silence. Legal provisions often conflate coverage of terrorist activity with condoning it.
According to CPJ report, thirty-five journalists worldwide were jailed without any publicly disclosed charge. Lack of due process in some countries results in such a dearth of information that it’s nearly impossible for CPJ to determine what landed a journalist in jail, whether they have any health problems, and sometimes even whether they are alive. In places such as Eritrea and Syria, journalists who were last known to be in government custody have not been seen or heard from in years. All seven journalists in Syrian government jails have been there for at least four years, amid unconfirmed rumors of torture or execution. CPJ continues to list the journalists on the census to hold the government accountable for their whereabouts and well-being.
Other findings from CPJ’s prison census include: Ninety-seven percent of jailed journalists are local. Of the total imprisoned worldwide, 22—or 8 percent—are female journalists. Freelancers account for 75 cases–or 29 percent. Politics is by far the most dangerous beat, covered by 87 percent of those jailed. Many journalists cover more than one beat.
CPJ stated that it defines journalists as people who cover the news or comment on public affairs in media, including print, photographs, radio, television, and online. In its annual prison census, CPJ includes only those journalists who it has confirmed have been imprisoned in relation to their work. CPJ said it believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs.