Jailed Internet journalists on the rise?

Rukmini Callimachi
Associated Press Newswires
December, 8 2006

NEW YORK (AP) – When Iranian journalist Mojtaba Saminejad was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the country’s Supreme Leader, it was not for an article that appeared in a newspaper. His offending story was posted on his personal Web blog.

Nearly one-third of journalists now serving time in prisons around the world published their work on the Internet, the second-largest category behind print journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in an analysis released Thursday.

The bulk of Internet journalists in jail — 49 in total — shows that “authoritarian states are becoming more determined to control the Internet,” said Joel Simon, the New York-based group’s executive director.

“It wasn’t so long ago that people were talking about the Internet as a new medium that could never be controlled,” he said. “The reality is that governments are now recognizing they need to control the Internet to control information.”

Other noteworthy imprisoned Internet journalists include U.S. video blogger Joshua Wolf, who refused to give a grand jury his footage of a 2005 protest against a G-8 economic summit, and China’s Shi Tao, who is serving a 10-year sentence for posting online instructions by the government on how to cover the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

For the second year in a row, CPJ’s annual survey found the total number of journalists in jail worldwide has increased. There were 134 reporters, editors and photographers incarcerated as of Dec. 1, nine more than a year ago.

In addition to the Internet writers, the total includes 67 print journalists, eight TV reporters, eight radio reporters and two documentary filmmakers.

Among the 24 nations that have imprisoned reporters, China topped the list for the eighth consecutive year with 31 journalists behind bars — 19 of them Internet journalists. Cuba was second with 24 reporters in prison. Nearly all of them had filed their reports to overseas-based Web sites.

The U.S. government and military has detained three journalists, including Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who was taken into custody in Iraq nine months ago and has yet to be charged with a crime.

CPJ recorded the first jailing of an Internet reporter in its 1997 census. Since then, the number has steadily grown and now includes reporters, editors and photographers whose work appeared primarily on the Internet, in e-mails or in other electronic forms.

The increase is a testament to the increasing attention of government censors to the Internet, media experts say.

“I refer to the freedom of the press as the canary in the coal mine,” said Joshua Friedman, director of international programs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “It’s a barometer of the insecurity of the people running these governments. One of the things that makes them insecure these days is the power of the Internet.”

The rise in jailings of Internet journalists is also an indication that reporters in authoritarian countries are increasingly using the Web to circumvent state controls.

Shi, the jailed Chinese journalist, could have published his notes on state propaganda in the Chinese magazine in Hunan province where he worked as an editorial director. He chose instead to send an e-mail from his Yahoo account to the U.S.-based editor of a Chinese language Web forum.

Cuban journalist Manuel Vasquez-Portal said he posted his articles on a Miami-based Web site for a similar reason.

“Without a doubt, the Internet provided me an avenue. It was the only way to get the truth out of Cuba,” he said through an interpreter.

Vasquez-Portal, who was jailed for 15 months in 2003, said he had to call his stories in to the operator of the Web site, though, because Cubans are not allowed access to the Internet.

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