Attacks on the Press in 2020

Attacks on the Press in 2020

Amid a global pandemic and widespread political upheaval, a record number of journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2020, and the number singled out for murder in reprisal for their work more than doubled from a year earlier.

The United States, under President Trump, failed to stand up for press freedom at home and abroad. CPJ has issued recommendations to the Biden administration for restoring the U.S. as a beacon of this vital human right.

Interactive map by Geoff McGhee for CPJ

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Amid a global pandemic and widespread political upheaval, a record number of journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2020, and the number murdered in reprisal for their work more than doubled from a year earlier.

Interactive map by Geoff McGhee for CPJ

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Journalists imprisoned in 2020

In its annual global survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 274 journalists in jail in relation to their work on December 1, 2020, exceeding the high of 272 in 2016.

This map shows the countries imprisoning journalists in 2020.

Read about our methodology
 

Journalists imprisoned in 2020

In its annual global survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 274 journalists in jail in relation to their work on December 1, 2020, exceeding the high of 272 in 2016.

This map shows the countries imprisoning journalists in 2020.

Read about our methodology

China tops list for second year

China, which arrested several journalists for their coverage of the pandemic, was the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row. Many of the 47 journalists in prison there are serving long sentences, or are jailed in the Xinjiang region without any charge disclosed.

Those arrested for their coverage of COVID-19 had challenged Beijing’s official narrative of its handling of the disease.

China tops list for second year

China, which arrested several journalists for their coverage of the pandemic, was the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row. Many of the 47 journalists in prison there are serving long sentences, or are jailed in the Xinjiang region without any charge disclosed. Those arrested for their coverage of COVID-19 had challenged Beijing’s official narrative of its handling of the disease.

Turkey

China was followed by Turkey, where the number of journalists in prison has declined since a surge in 2016, the year of a failed coup attempt. Still, Turkey continues to try journalists free on parole and arrest new ones (and their lawyers).

Because of COVID-19, judicial proceedings were suspended for three months in 2020, prolonging prison for those in custody and anxiety for those free pending trial.

Turkey

China was followed by Turkey, where the number of journalists in prison has declined since a surge in 2016, the year of a failed coup attempt. Still, Turkey continues to try journalists free on parole and arrest new ones (and their lawyers). Because of 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

Egypt, which went to great lengths to keep journalists in custody even when they were not convicted of any crime, was the third worst jailer. Authorities arrested at least three journalists for their work on COVID-19; one journalist diagnosed with the illness was dragged out of quarantine, while another contracted it in custody and died.

Saudi Arabia — like Egypt, a U.S. ally — was the fourth worst jailer of journalists in 2020.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Egypt, which went to great lengths to keep journalists in custody even when they were not convicted of any crime, was the third worst jailer. Authorities arrested at least three journalists for their work on COVID-19; one journalist diagnosed with the illness was dragged out of quarantine, while another contracted it in custody and died. Saudi Arabia — like Egypt, a U.S. ally — was the fourth worst jailer of journalists in 2020.

Belarus

Countries where the number of jailed journalists rose significantly include Belarus, where President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term in an election widely seen as fraudulent, sparking mass protests. Authorities arrested dozens of journalists, sentencing many to fines or jail terms of one to two weeks, but some face more serious charges.

As of December 1, at least 10 journalists were jailed in Belarus, marking the first time the country has appeared on CPJ’s census since 2014.

Belarus

Countries where the number of jailed journalists rose significantly include Belarus, where President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term in an election widely seen as fraudulent, sparking mass protests. Authorities arrested dozens of journalists, sentencing many to fines or jail terms of one to two weeks, but some face more serious charges. As of December 1, at least 10 journalists were jailed in Belarus, marking the first time the country has appeared on CPJ’s census since 2014.

Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, authorities rounded up journalists as political unrest degenerated into armed conflict. At least seven members of the press were jailed there in 2020, compared with just one a year earlier. Most were accused of anti-state crimes, and authorities repeatedly extended their detentions to conduct investigations, but did not produce any evidence.

Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, authorities rounded up journalists as political unrest degenerated into armed conflict. At least seven members of the press were jailed there in 2020, compared with just one a year earlier. Most were accused of anti-state crimes, and authorities repeatedly extended their detentions to conduct investigations, but did not produce any evidence.

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A surge in reprisal murders

Globally, at least 32 journalists were killed in 2020; of those, 22 were singled out in retaliation for their reporting — more than double the previous year’s 10 such murders. Criminal gangs and militant groups targeted reporters working in violent but democratic nations, from South America to Southeast Asia.

Mexico and Afghanistan were the deadliest countries.

Read about our methodology
 

A surge in reprisal murders

Globally, at least 32 journalists were killed in 2020; of those, 22 were singled out in retaliation for their reporting — more than double the previous year’s 10 such murders. Criminal gangs and militant groups targeted reporters working in violent but democratic nations, from South America to Southeast Asia.

Mexico and Afghanistan were the deadliest countries.

Read about our methodology

Mexico

Mexico has long been the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere for the press; journalists there operate amid a complex web of criminal drug-trafficking gangs and entrenched official corruption. In 2020, as authorities again failed to bring journalists’ killers to justice — and as violent conflict ebbed elsewhere in the world — Mexico became one of the two most deadly countries for the press worldwide.

At least four journalists were murdered in 2020, and one more was gunned down while reporting from a crime scene; CPJ is investigating the motive in at least four other journalist deaths.

 

Mexico

Mexico has long been the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere for the press; journalists there operate amid a complex web of criminal drug-trafficking gangs and entrenched official corruption. In 2020, as authorities again failed to bring journalists’ killers to justice — and as violent conflict ebbed elsewhere in the world — Mexico became one of the two most deadly countries for the press worldwide.

At least four journalists were murdered in 2020, and one more was gunned down while reporting from a crime scene; CPJ is investigating the motive in at least four other journalist deaths.

Central America

In Honduras, violence and threats to the media from organized crime, coupled with the weak rule of law, have led to a climate of fear and self-censorship. At least two journalists were murdered in the country in 2020, and CPJ is investigating the motive in two more killings.

 

Central America

In Honduras, violence and threats to the media from organized crime, coupled with the weak rule of law, have led to a climate of fear and self-censorship. At least two journalists were murdered in the country in 2020, and CPJ is investigating the motive in two more killings.

Barbados

CPJ also documented the first journalist killed in Barbados since records began in 1992.

The Middle East

In 2020, the number of combat-related deaths—three—dropped to the lowest level since 2000, as the intensity of conflicts in the Middle East abated and the COVID-19 pandemic dominated media attention and made it difficult for journalists to travel.

All three of those journalists were killed while documenting the continuing conflict near Idlib in northern Syria, and died in airstrikes by suspected Russian forces allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran

In a striking case of direct and public killing of a journalist by a government, Iran executed Roohollah Zam on December 12 by hanging after abducting him in Iraq and sentencing him to death. Zam’s website and Telegram channel, Amad News — which he ran from exile—had reported critically on Iranian officials and shared details of protests. CPJ classifies Zam’s killing as a murder, based on methodology that defines murder as the targeted killing of a journalist in direct reprisal for their work.

Iran

In a striking case of direct and public killing of a journalist by a government, Iran executed Roohollah Zam on December 12 by hanging after abducting him in Iraq and sentencing him to death. Zam’s website and Telegram channel, Amad News — which he ran from exile—had reported critically on Iranian officials and shared details of protests. CPJ classifies Zam’s killing as a murder, based on methodology that defines murder as the targeted killing of a journalist in direct reprisal for their work.

Afghanistan

Despite the reduction in crossfire-related killings, countries in conflict remain extremely dangerous for the media. Militant groups murdered at least four journalists in retaliation for their work in Afghanistan, a significant jump after no killings were reported in 2019.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for one attack, which killed a reporter and her driver, and came as representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group agreed to a framework to move forward with peace talks.

Afghanistan

Despite the reduction in crossfire-related killings, countries in conflict remain extremely dangerous for the media. Militant groups murdered at least four journalists in retaliation for their work in Afghanistan, a significant jump after no killings were reported in 2019.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for one attack, which killed a reporter and her driver, and came as representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group agreed to a framework to move forward with peace talks.

Philippines

In the Philippines, at least three journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2020, despite the efforts of the Presidential Task Force for Media Security, a state body that President Rodrigo Duterte created four years ago to solve media killings. While Duterte and his government claim to have made progress in combating impunity, they have failed to prosecute the masterminds of murders and—like Mexican President López Obrador— undermined the press with hostile rhetoric, most notably by Duterte himself.

Philippines

In the Philippines, at least three journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2020, despite the efforts of the Presidential Task Force for Media Security, a state body that President Rodrigo Duterte created four years ago to solve media killings. While Duterte and his government claim to have made progress in combating impunity, they have failed to prosecute the masterminds of murders and—like Mexican President López Obrador— undermined the press with hostile rhetoric, most notably by Duterte himself.

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Read the stories of journalists who were killed in 2020, and explore CPJ’s data on journalists who were imprisoned or killed in the line of duty.

Click to interact with the map

Methodology

Imprisonments

CPJ’s annual prison census accounts only for journalists in government custody and does not include those who have disappeared or are held captive by non-state actors. These cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.”

CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on December 1, 2020. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year. CPJ includes only those journalists who it has confirmed have been imprisoned in relation to their work. Journalists remain on CPJ’s list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody.


Killings

CPJ began compiling detailed records on all journalist deaths in 1992. CPJ staff members independently investigate and verify the circumstances behind each death. CPJ considers a case work-related only when its staff is reasonably certain that a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as covering a protest that turns violent.

If the motives in a killing are unclear, but it is possible that a journalist died in relation to his or her work, CPJ classifies the case as “unconfirmed” and continues to investigate.

CPJ’s list does not include journalists who died of illness or were killed in car or plane accidents unless the crash was caused by hostile action. Other press organizations using different criteria cite different numbers of deaths.

CPJ’s database of journalists killed in 2020 includes capsule reports on each victim and filters for examining trends in the data. CPJ maintains a database of all journalists killed since 1992 and those who have gone missing or are imprisoned for their work.