Iran, China drive prison tally to 14-year high

Relying heavily on vague antistate charges, authorities jail 145 journalists worldwide. Eritrea, Burma, and Uzbekistan are also among the worst jailers of the press. A CPJ special report

From Africa to the Americas, more journalists are imprisoned today than at any time since 1996. (AFP)
From Africa to the Americas, more journalists are imprisoned today than at any time since 1996. (AFP)

Published December 8, 2010

Iran’s sustained crackdown on critical voices and China’s brutal suppression of ethnic journalism have pushed the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide to its highest level since 1996, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. In its annual census of imprisoned journalists, CPJ identified 145 reporters, editors, and photojournalists behind bars on December 1, an increase of nine from the 2009 tally.

Iran and China, with 34 imprisoned journalists apiece, are the world’s worst jailers of the press, together constituting nearly half of the worldwide total. Eritrea, Burma, and Uzbekistan round out the five worst jailers from among the 28 nations that imprison journalists. (Read detailed accounts of each imprisoned journalist.)

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“The increase in the number of journalists jailed around the world is a shocking development,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “It is fueled largely by a small handful of countries that systematically jail journalists—countries that are at war with information itself.”

Data from Iran are surprising in that they reflect imprisonments not simply from the post-election crackdown of 2009, but from a sustained assault on critical voices that continues to this day. In the last two months alone, CPJ found, Iranian authorities have detained four journalists. The Iranian detainees range from internationally known writers such as Issa Saharkhiz, a veteran state journalist who became a reform-minded columnist, to Navid Mohebbi, a blogger covering women’s rights who, at age 18, is the youngest person in CPJ’s census.

The number of imprisonments in China was up significantly from 2009, when CPJ found 24 jailed journalists. The increase was propelled by a series of imprisonments of Uighur and Tibetan journalists that began in the latter half of 2009 and continued into 2010, the details of which have emerged only recently in accounts of their court proceedings. The Uighur and Tibetan journalists covered ethnic issues and the violent regional unrest of recent years, topics that are officially off-limits. These journalists are also vulnerable because they are unrecognized by the state or Communist Party, which authorize all news media in China. The detainees include a Tibetan writer known as Buddha who questioned economic disparities between Tibet and the rest of the nation in a now-banned magazine, and Gheyrat Niyaz, editor of a Uighur website who commented on ethnic violence in the far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Mohammad Davari is one of 34 imprisoned journalists in Iran. A CPJ advocacy campaign is seeking their release. (Getty/Michael Nagle)
Mohammad Davari is one of 34 imprisoned journalists in Iran. A CPJ advocacy campaign is seeking their release. (Getty/Michael Nagle)

Both China and Iran rely heavily on the use of vague antistate charges. But CPJ found that the abusive application of antistate charges—such as treason, subversion, or acting against national interests—occurs worldwide and constitutes the single greatest cause of journalist imprisonments. At least 72 journalists are being held on such charges around the world. They include Kazakhstan newspaper editor Ramazan Yesergepov, jailed on “state secrets” charges after he embarrassed the security service by disclosing memos showing it had exerted political influence in a local tax case. Tunisian television journalist Fahem Boukadous is being held on charges of “harming public order” in his coverage of labor protests in a remote mining region. In Burundi, Jean Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of the news website Net Press, faces treason charges for writing an opinion piece questioning whether the country’s security forces are capable of stopping a terrorist attack. And in Vietnam, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien was jailed on antistate charges after criticizing public officials’ handling of a compensation fund for the survivors of deceased fishermen.

“The legal justification for jailing journalists varies from country to country,” said Simon. “But the motivation is nearly always the same: to crush those who challenge the authority of the state.”

The increase reflected in the 2010 census comes despite the release of 17 Cuban journalists who had been held on antistate charges since a 2003 government crackdown on dissent. The Roman Catholic Church, with participation from the Spanish government, struck an agreement in July with the government of President Raúl Castro Ruz that called for the release of all political prisoners still being held from the 2003 sweep. Although Cuban authorities did not explicitly condition the releases on the detainees going into exile, it is clear that is what the government has wanted. All of those freed thus far were immediately flown to Spain. Three journalists arrested in 2003, balking at Cuba’s apparent insistence they leave the country in exchange for their freedom, remained in jail as of December 1. A fourth Cuban journalist, arrested in 2009, also remained in prison.

Eritrea is the world’s third-worst jailer in 2010, imprisoning 17 journalists as of December 1. Eleven of the Eritrean detainees have been held in secret locations without charge for a decade. The Eritrean government has refused to disclose any information about these 11 detainees, who were swept up in a brutal shutdown of the independent press. Unconfirmed reports have said four of the journalists jailed in Eritrea may have died due to mistreatment in custody. CPJ is seeking to corroborate those reports and continues to list the journalists in its 2010 census as a means of holding the government responsible for their fates.

With 13 journalists behind bars, Burma is the world’s fourth-worst jailer. Among those imprisoned is Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an Oslo-based organization run by Burmese exiles and known for its hard-hitting journalism. Hla Hla Win was arrested after interviewing Buddhist monks for a story pegged to the anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a series of monk-led protests that was put down by lethal military force.

Uzbekistan placed fifth on CPJ’s dishonor roll, with six journalists jailed on December 1. The detainees include Dzhamshid Karimov, the president’s nephew, who is being held involuntarily in a psychiatric facility in reprisal for his critical coverage of the government’s social and economic policies.

Iraqi photographer Ibrahim Jassam hugs his mother as he returns home after 17 months in U.S. custody. He was never charged with a crime. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)
Iraqi photographer Ibrahim Jassam hugs his mother as he returns home after 17 months in U.S. custody. He was never charged with a crime. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

At least one journalist died in prison in 2010. Cameroonian editor Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota was jailed after he and other journalists asked a presidential aide about alleged misuse of state oil company funds. An initial death certificate faulted prison officials for neglect, although the government later denied any responsibility.

For the first time since 2004, the United States does not appear on the census as a nation imprisoning journalists. For years, U.S. military forces held journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay in open-ended detentions without charge or due process. All of those journalists were eventually released without criminal charges being corroborated, but at least 14 spent months or years in custody. The last of those detainees, Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer who contributed to Reuters, was freed without charge in February. He had spent 17 months in prison. CPJ advocated extensively over many years to sway U.S. military officials to change their detention practices.

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

  • The worldwide total is at its highest point since 1996, when CPJ recorded 185 journalists behind bars, a figure driven by Turkey’s suppression of ethnic Kurdish journalists. In all, Turkey imprisoned 78 journalists that year.
  • The number of imprisoned online journalists leveled off in 2010 after several consecutive years of significant increases. Sixty-nine journalists whose work appeared primarily online were jailed as of December 1, constituting nearly half of all those in jail. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 57 cases in 2010. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.
  • At least 64 freelance journalists were in prison worldwide, a figure consistent with the 2009 census. Freelance journalists can be vulnerable to imprisonment because they often do not have the legal and monetary support that news organizations can provide to staffers.
  • Antistate charges were far and away the most common charge used to jail journalists. Violations of censorship rules, the second most common charge, were applied in 12 cases.
  • In 11 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 journalist’s work.
  • Charges of criminal defamation, reporting “false” news, and engaging in ethnic or religious “insult” constitute the other charges filed against journalists in the census.
  • In 34 cases, governments have bypassed due process entirely, filing no charges and conducting no evident court proceedings.
  • Four CPJ International Press Freedom Award winners are on the 2010 census. Awardee Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, a Cuban journalist held since the 2003 crackdown, has refused to leave the island in exchange for his freedom. “He will not let anybody throw him out of his country,” his wife, Laura Pollán, told CPJ.
  • Azerbaijani editor Eynulla Fatullayev, anther jailed CPJ awardee, remained behind bars despite rulings by the European Court of Human Rights ordering his release. CPJ research shows authorities fabricated a series of charges against Fatullayev after he accused the government of a cover-up in the unsolved murder of another Azerbaijani editor, Elmar Huseynov.
  • CPJ awardees Shi Tao and Mohammad Davari also appear on the census, both held on antistate charges. Shi is serving a 10-year prison term in China for divulging a propaganda department order that was retroactively declared a state secret. Davari is being held in Iran on charges that include “disrupting national security” after he documented the abuse and rape of inmates at the Kahrizak Detention Center. His coverage sparked an outcry so strong that Iranian authorities felt compelled to shut the facility.

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.

Over the past year, CPJ advocacy led to the early release of at least 46 imprisoned journalists.

CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2010. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year. 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 such as criminal gangs or militant groups are not included on the prison census. Their cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.”