Special Reports


Internet fuels rise in number of jailed journalists

New York, December 7, 2006--The number of journalists jailed worldwide for their work increased for the second consecutive year, and one in three is now an Internet blogger, online editor, or Web-based reporter, according to an analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

CPJ's annual worldwide census found 134 journalists imprisoned on December 1, an increase of nine from the 2005 tally. China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were the top four jailers among the 24 nations who imprisoned journalists. Read detailed accounts of each imprisoned journalist

Print reporters, editors, and photographers continue to make up the largest professional category, with 67 cases in 2006, but Internet journalists are a growing segment of the census and now constitute the second largest category, with 49 cases. The number of imprisoned journalists whose work appeared primarily on the Web, via e-mail, or in another electronic form has increased each year since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. The 2006 figure is the highest number of Internet journalists CPJ has ever tallied in its annual survey. The roster of jailed Internet journalists includes China's "citizen" reporters, the independent Cuban writers who file reports for overseas Web sites, and the U.S. video blogger Joshua Wolf who refused to hand over footage to a grand jury.

"We're at a crucial juncture in the fight for press freedom because authoritarian states have made the Internet a major front in their effort to control information," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. "China is challenging the notion that the Internet is impossible to control or censor, and if it succeeds there will be far-ranging implications, not only for the medium but for press freedom all over the world."

Over all, "antistate" allegations such as subversion, divulging state secrets, and acting against the interests of the state are the most common charges used to imprison journalists worldwide. Eighty-four journalists are jailed under these charges, many by the Chinese, Cuban, and Ethiopian governments.

But CPJ also found an increasing number of journalists held without any charge or trial at all. Twenty imprisoned journalists, or 15 percent, have been denied even the most basic elements of due process, CPJ found. Eritrea, which accounts for more than half of these cases, keeps journalists in secret locations and withholds basic information about their well-being. The United States has imprisoned two journalists without charge or trial: Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, now held for eight months in Iraq without due process; and Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, jailed five years and now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"In Cuba and in China, journalists are often jailed after summary trials and held in miserable conditions far from their families. But the cruelty and injustice of imprisonment is compounded where there is zero due process and journalists slip into oblivion. In Eritrea, the worst abuser in this regard, there is no check on authority and it is unclear whether some jailed journalists are even alive," Simon added.

For the eighth consecutive year, China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with 31 imprisoned. About three-quarters of the cases in China were brought under vague "antistate" laws; 19 cases involve Internet journalists. China's list includes Shi Tao, an internationally recognized journalist serving a 10-year sentence for posting notes online detailing propaganda department instructions on how to cover the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The government declared the instructions a "state secret."

Cuba ranked second, with 24 reporters, writers, and editors behind bars, most of them jailed in the country's massive March 2003 crackdown on dissidents and the independent press. Nearly all of those on Cuba's list had filed news and commentary to overseas Web sites. These journalists used phone lines and faxes, not computers, to transmit their reports; once posted, their articles were seen across the world but almost never in Cuba, where the government heavily restricts Internet access.

Eritrea is the leader among African countries, with 23 journalists in prison. These prisoners are being held incommunicado, and their well-being is a growing source of concern. A non-bylined report, circulated on several Web sites in August and deemed by CPJ sources to be generally credible, claimed that three of the journalists may have died. CPJ and other international organizations have urgently sought information from Asmara, but the government has refused to provide basic facts about the journalists' whereabouts, their health, or whether they are still alive.

Neighboring Ethiopia has imprisoned 18 journalists, most of whom are being tried for treason after being swept up by authorities in a November 2005 crackdown on dissent. A CPJ investigation in April found no basis for the government's treason charges. Burma, which is holding seven journalists, is fifth among nations, followed by Uzbekistan, which is holding five journalists. The United States, Azerbaijan, and Burundi are seventh on the list of nations, each having jailed three journalists.

Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJ's analysis:

• In about 10 percent of cases, governments used a variety of charges unrelated to journalism to retaliate against critical writers, editors, and photojournalists. Such charges ranged from property damage and regulatory violations to drug possession and association with extremists. In the cases included in this census, CPJ has determined that the charges were most likely lodged in reprisal for the journalist's work.

• Spreading ethnic or religious "hatred" was the next most common charge used to imprison journalists worldwide. Such charges were lodged in about four percent of cases.

• Criminal defamation charges were filed in about three percent of cases, a slight decline from the rate recorded in recent years. A growing number of nations, particularly in Western Europe, have moved to decriminalize defamation and insult.

• Violations of censorship rules account for another three percent of cases. Burma, for example, jailed two journalists in March for violating prohibitions on photographing or filming the country's new capital, Pyinmana.

• The longest-serving journalists in CPJ's census were Chen Renjie and Lin Youping, who were jailed in China in July 1983 for publishing a pamphlet titled Ziyou Bao (Freedom Report). Codefendant Chen Biling was later executed.

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. In addition, CPJ sent requests during the year to Eritrean and U.S. officials seeking details in the cases in which journalists were held without publicly disclosed charges.

CPJ's list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2006. 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." Details of these cases are also available on CPJ's Web site.

December 7, 2006 12:00 AM ET |

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