Second worst year on record for jailed journalists

For the second consecutive year, Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, followed closely by Iran and China. The number of journalists in prison globally decreased from a year earlier but remains close to historical highs. A CPJ special report by Elana Beiser

Turkish journalists protest for media rights in Istanbul on November 5, 2013. Demonstrators proceeded at a rate of one step per minute to highlight the slow process of justice in Turkey. (AFP/Ozan Kose)
Turkish journalists protest for media rights in Istanbul on November 5, 2013. Demonstrators proceeded at a rate of one step per minute to highlight the slow process of justice in Turkey. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Published December 18, 2013

Turkey, Iran, and China accounted for more than half of all journalists imprisoned around the world in 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. In its annual census, CPJ identified 211 journalists jailed for their work, the second worst year on record after 2012, when 232 journalists were behind bars.

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Intolerant governments in Ankara, Tehran, and Beijing used mostly anti-state charges to silence a combined 107 critical reporters, bloggers, and editors. Turkey and Iran retained their distinctions as the worst and second worst jailers for two years in a row, despite each having released some prisoners during 2013. The number detained by China held steady. (Read detailed accounts of each imprisoned journalist here.)

Journalists in Turkish jails declined to 40 from 49 the previous year, as some were freed pending trial. Others benefited from new legislation that allowed defendants in lengthy pre-trial detentions to be released for time served. Additional journalists were freed after CPJ had completed its census on December 1. Still, authorities are holding dozens of Kurdish journalists on terror-related charges and others for allegedly participating in anti-government plots. Broadly worded anti-terror and penal code statutes allow Turkish authorities to conflate the coverage of banned groups with membership, according to CPJ research.

In Iran, the number of jailed journalists fell to 35 from 45, as some sentences expired and the government kept up its policy of releasing some prisoners on furlough—prisoners who do not know when or if they will be summoned back to jail to finish serving out their terms. Authorities also continued to make new arrests and to condemn minority and reformist journalists to lengthy prison sentences despite the election in June of a new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Thirty-two reporters, editors, and bloggers were imprisoned in China, the same number as in 2012. Although journalists including CPJ’s 2005 International Press Freedom Award winner, Shi Tao, were released during the year, a fresh crackdown on Internet criticism, especially allegations of corruption, led to several new arrests beginning in August.

The list of top 10 worst jailers of journalists was rounded out by Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.

Demonstrators call for release of Al-Jazeera journalists Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammad Bader outside Egypt's embassy in London on November 12, 2013. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Demonstrators call for release of Al-Jazeera journalists Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammad Bader outside Egypt’s embassy in London on November 12, 2013. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Egypt was holding five journalists in jail compared with none in 2012. Following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, the military-supported government detained dozens of local and international journalists, particularly those viewed as critical of the government or sympathetic to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Most were freed.

The number of journalists imprisoned by Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria declined to 12 from 15 the previous year, but the census does not account for the dozens of reporters who have been abducted and are believed to be held by armed opposition groups. As of late 2013, about 30 journalists were missing in Syria.

The single journalist behind bars in the Americas was in the United States. Roger Shuler, an independent blogger specializing in allegations of corruption and scandal in Republican circles in Alabama, was being held on contempt of court for refusing to comply with an injunction regarding content ruled defamatory. In recent years, journalist jailings in the Americas have become increasingly rare, with one Cuban documented in prison in 2012 and none throughout the region in 2011.

Other trends and details that emerged in CPJ’s research include:

  • The 211 journalists jailed compares with a record high of 232 imprisoned the previous year. Prior to 2012, the highest number in CPJ’s annual census was 185 in 1996. CPJ has conducted the worldwide survey since 1990.
  • Worldwide, 124 journalists were jailed on anti-state charges such as subversion or terrorism­. That is far higher than any other type of charge, such as defamation or insult, but roughly in line with the proportion of anti-state charges in previous years. In 45 cases, no charges were disclosed at all.
  • Vietnam was holding 18 journalists, up from 14 a year earlier, as authorities intensified a crackdown on bloggers, who represent the country’s only independent press.
  • The number of prisoners rose in Ethiopia, Bahrain, and Somalia, in addition to Vietnam.
  • Countries that appeared on the 2013 prison census after jailing no journalists in the 2012 survey were Jordan, Russia, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Macedonia, Pakistan, and Republic of Congo, in addition to Egypt and the U.S.
  • Eritrea remained Africa’s worst jailer of journalists, with 22 behind bars compared with 28 in 2012. Eritrea is the world’s worst abuser of due process; no Eritrean detainee has ever been publicly charged with a crime or brought before a court for trial.
  • Online journalists accounted for half, 106, of the prisoners. Seventy-nine worked in print.
  • Roughly one-third of the journalists in jail globally were freelancers, a slightly smaller proportion than in other recent years. In 2012, 37 percent of the prisoners were freelancers.

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 the past year, CPJ advocacy led to the early release of at least 39 imprisoned journalists worldwide.

CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on December 1, 2013. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at 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.”

Elana Beiser is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked as an editor for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in New York, London, Brussels, Singapore, and Hong Kong.