Journalists being jailed without charges worldwide

Saadia Qamar
The Nation (Pakistan)
December 11, 2007

A new analysis by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has found that one in six journalists imprisoned around the world are being held without charges.

As of December 1, 127 journalists were being held in jails and prisons around the world. The study also found that Internet journalists-including bloggers-make up 39 percent of journalists in jail. In China, 18 of 29 journalists in jail worked for online media outlets.

The study, however, has totally overlooked the recent arrests and manhandling of journalists in Pakistan.

One in six journalists jailed worldwide are being held without any publicly disclosed charge, many for months or years at a time and some in secret locations, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found in a new analysis.

CPJs annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists found 127 behind bars on December 1. China, which has failed to meet its promises to improve press freedom before the 2008 Olympics, continued to be the worlds leading jailer of journalists, a dishonour it has held for nine consecutive years. Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, and Azerbaijan round out the top five jailers among the 24 nations that imprison journalists.

Anti-state allegations such as subversion, divulging state secrets, and acting against national interests remain the most common charge used to imprison journalists worldwide, CPJ found. About 57 percent of journalists in the census are jailed under these charges, many of them by the Chinese and Cuban governments.

The proportion of journalists held without any charge at all increased for the third consecutive year. Eritrea and Iran account for many of these cases, but the United States has used this tactic as well. U.S. authorities have not filed charges or presented evidence against Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who has been held for more than five years at Guantanamo Bay, or Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, held in Iraq for more than 19 months. The U.S. military said in November that Husseins case would be referred to Iraqi courts for prosecution but continued to withhold details explaining the basis for the detention.

Imprisoning journalists on the basis of assertions alone should not be confused with a legal process. This is nothing less than state-sponsored abduction, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. While we believe every one of these 127 journalists should be released, we are especially concerned for those detained without charge because theyre often held in abysmal conditions, cut off from their lawyers and their families.

The practice of holding journalists without charge has eroded basic standards of fairness and accountability. Iranian authorities, for example, jailed Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand in July, but they have yet to file formal charges or bring the editor before a judge. Kaboudvands lawyer has not been allowed to see him or review the governments case. Eritrean authorities will not even confirm whether the journalists in its custody are alive or dead. At least 19 journalists worldwide are being held in secret locations, CPJ found, with Eritrea the worst offender in this regard.

Continuing a decade-long trend, Internet journalists make up an increasing proportion of CPJs census. Bloggers, online editors, and Web-based reporters constitute about 39 percent of journalists jailed worldwide. Print journalists make up the largest professional category, accounting for about half of those in jail.

The rise of Internet journalism and its risks are evident in China, where 18 of the 29 jailed journalists worked online. Chinas list includes Shi Tao, an award-winning journalist serving a 10-year sentence for e-mailing details of a government propaganda directive to an overseas Web site. The Internet giant Yahoo supplied account information to Chinese authorities that led to Shis 2004 arrest and triggered an ongoing debate over corporate responsibility.

China continues to rely heavily on the use of vague antistate charges, imprisoning 22 journalists on accusations such as inciting subversion of state power. Despite Chinas 2001 promises to the International Olympic Committee that it would ensure complete media freedom, its leaders continue to jail reporters and operate a vast system of censorship. CPJ has urged the IOC and the Games corporate sponsors to hold Beijing accountable to its word.

China has remained the worlds worst jailer of journalists from the day the Games were awarded through today, just months before the Olympics are scheduled to begin, said CPJs Simon. China and the IOC have an obligation to make good on the broad promises made when Beijing was selected. For the torch to be lit in Beijing next August as 29 journalists languish in jail would mock the ideals of the Olympic movement.

Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJs analysis:

In about 12 percent of cases, governments 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 journalists work.

Criminal defamation, the next most common charge, was lodged in about 7 percent of cases. Charges of ethnic or religious insult were filed in about 5 percent of cases, while violations of censorship rules account for another 2 percent.

Print and Internet journalists make up the bulk of the census. Television journalists compose the next largest professional category, accounting for 6 percent of cases. Radio journalists account for 4 percent, documentary filmmakers 2 percent.

CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. The organisation 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 cases in which journalists were held without publicly disclosed charges.

Journalists, who either disappear or are abducted by non-state entities, including criminal gangs, rebels, or militant groups, are not included on the imprisoned list. Their cases are classified as missing or abducted.