By Arlene Getz/CPJ Editorial Director
Israel emerged as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists following the October 7 start of the Israel-Gaza war, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2023 prison census has found. Israel ranked sixth – tied with Iran – behind China, Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, and Vietnam, respectively.
Overall, CPJ documented 320 journalists behind bars on the census date of December 1, 2023. The number was the second-highest recorded by CPJ since the census began in 1992 – a disturbing barometer of entrenched authoritarianism and the vitriol of governments determined to smother independent voices. Some governments go a step further, using transnational repression to threaten and harass reporters beyond their own borders. Moscow’s intimidatory actions included a spate of arrest warrants for Russian journalists living in other countries; Ethiopia forced the return of an exiled journalist to face terrorism charges after having him arrested in neighboring Djibouti.
CPJ’s research also shows that more than half – 168 – listed in the census face false news and anti-state charges such as terrorism in retaliation for their critical coverage.
In 66 cases, those held have not yet been told of the charges they are facing. They often face gratuitously cruel conditions, due process is frequently subverted as authorities prolong pre-charge and pre-trial detention of journalists, and journalists’ lawyers themselves face retaliation around the world.
More in this report:
Video: Misusing and abusing the law
Interactive map: Attacks on the Press
Other key findings from 2023:
Worst jailers of journalists
China (44 behind bars), Myanmar (43), and Belarus (28) held more than a third (35.8%) of those incarcerated on the day of the census.
China has long ranked as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. Censorship makes the exact number of journalists jailed there notoriously difficult to determine, but Beijing’s media crackdown has widened in recent years, with 2021 marking the first time journalists from Hong Kong were in jail at the time of CPJ’s census. The Hong Kong arrests came after Beijing imposed a harsh national security law following mass pro-democracy protests. Several of the journalists held at the time face ongoing delays in their cases, including Jimmy Lai, founder of the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. Lai’s national security trial only started after he’d spent nearly 1,100 days behind bars. If convicted, he could be jailed for life.
Chinese authorities are also ramping up the use of anti-state charges to hold journalists, with three out of the five new China cases in CPJ’s 2023 database consisting of journalists accused of espionage, inciting separatism, or subverting state power. Many journalists charged are ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of crimes against humanity for its mass detentions and harsh repression of the region’s mostly Muslim ethnic groups. In 2023, 19 of the 44 imprisoned were Uighur journalists.
Repression of journalists has also worsened dramatically in Myanmar and Belarus since 2021.
In Myanmar, the country’s independent media have been devastated since the February 2021 military coup, when the junta moved swiftly to arrest journalists, shut news outlets, and force journalists into exile. Almost three years later, journalists continue to be targeted under an anti-state provision broadly used to criminalize “incitement” and “false news.” In May, photojournalist Sai Zaw Thaike was arrested while covering the aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Mocha in western Myanmar and was later sentenced to 20 years in prison for sedition – the longest known prison penalty given to a reporter since the coup.
In Belarus, authorities have jailed an increasing number of journalists for their work since 2020, when the country was wracked by mass protests over the disputed reelection of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The majority – 71% – face anti-state charges; almost half are serving sentences of five years or more.
Belarusian authorities use “extremism” laws as their most common weapons to jail journalists in retaliation for their work, with five out of the seven new Belarus prisoners in CPJ’s 2023 census accused of creating or participating in extremist groups, or facilitating extremist activities. (CPJ is also investigating whether another Belarusian journalist is facing similar charges.) According to the exiled Belarusian Association of Journalists, at least 19 media outlets were labeled as “extremist” over the last two years.
Two key changes in the 2023 census listings are Israel and Iran, where each is recorded as holding at least 17 journalists on December 1, tying in sixth place.
Israel has appeared several times on CPJ’s annual census, but this is the highest number of arrests of Palestinian journalists since CPJ began documenting arrests in 1992 and the first time Israel has ranked among the top six offenders. All those known to be held by Israel as of CPJ’s December 1 census date were arrested in the Palestinian territory of the occupied West Bank after the start of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7. Most are held in administrative detention, which allows Israeli authorities to hold detainees without charge on the grounds that they suspect the detainee of planning to commit a future offense.
The closed nature of these procedures has made it difficult for CPJ’s researchers to learn of any accusations facing the journalists, but several families told CPJ they believed that they were jailed for social media postings. (Read more about Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian journalists here.)
Overall, Israel has detained more than 20 journalists since the war began, but those released before December 1 or held after that date are not included in the 2023 census. (See here for CPJ’s most recent figures on the number of journalists in custody.)
Iran’s numbers saw a sharp decline from its 2022 designation as the worst jailer of journalists following its clampdown on coverage of nationwide women-led protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Many of the 62 journalists listed on the 2022 census have since been released on bail to await charges or sentencing, meaning that the lower number incarcerated in 2023 in no way signals any letting up in Iran’s repression of the media.
Instead, authorities have responded to the uptick in reporting on women’s rights by singling out prominent female journalists to make an example of them.
As of December 1, 8 of the 17 journalists jailed in Iran were women.
They include Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, among the first journalists to report on Amini’s death in September 2022. Sentenced to serve 13- and 12-years respectively on anti-state charges linked to their reporting, the two women were allowed to leave prison on bail on January 14, 2024 – after almost 16 months behind bars — while Iran’s Supreme Court considers their appeal. Freelance journalist Vida Rabbani is in Evin prison serving the first of two sentences totaling 17 years for her protest coverage.
Russia also intensified its efforts to suppress free reporting. With the country’s independent media gutted following its full scale February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is trying to criminalize journalism beyond its borders by issuing arrest warrants and prison sentences in absentia for several prominent journalists working in exile.
Russia also holds a disproportionate number of foreign reporters in its jails. Twelve of the census’ global total of 17 non-local imprisoned journalists are held by Russia. Two, Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva, are U.S. citizens in pre-trial detention. The 10 from Ukraine include five Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group indigenous to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, four of whom are serving sentences of 12 to 19 years on charges of terrorism. One, Amet Suleymanov, suffers from multiple health issues, including heart, lungs, stomach, and joint problems.
Cruelty and retaliation
Prison conditions are harsh in the nations with the worst track records of detaining journalists. Country reports released by the U.S. Department of State in early 2023 found that prisoners in China, Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, and Vietnam typically faced physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, food and water shortages, and inadequate medical care.
At least 94 of the 320 journalists in the 2023 census – almost 30% – are known to have health problems. Many cannot get medications or access to doctors but their families are often reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisal against their relatives. CPJ’s research found numerous instances where jailed journalists were denied healthcare, medicine, and sometimes basic necessities like heat, hot water and electricity.
Vietnamese journalist Huynh Thuc Vy, for example, is serving two years and nine months for allegedly defacing Vietnam’s flag. Her father, Huynh Ngoc Tuan, told CPJ in November 2023 that Vy had developed tricuspid valve regurgitation, a serious heart condition, that required medication that the prison would not provide and her family could not afford to buy and get regularly delivered to the prison more than 120 miles from their home.
Also in Vietnam, prison officials stopped providing hot water to Tran Hunyh Duy Thuc to prevent him from preparing instant noodles purchased in the prison cafeteria. Thuc, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence, to be followed by five years’ house arrest, for “activities aimed at overthrowing the government,” has staged frequent hunger strikes against poor prison conditions and had stopped eating prison food last September as part of a protest against unfair food rationing.
Thuc’s family members say that he developed an eye ailment in 2017 after prison officials routinely cut electricity to his dark cell and refused to deliver him battery-powered flashlights provided by his family on the grounds that electronic devices are banned for prisoners.
In Russia, Ukrainian freelance journalist Iryna Danylovych, who is serving a prison sentence of six years and 11 months, is denied medical treatment in spite of having lost hearing in her left ear and suffering from debilitating headaches. “Irina is on the verge of a breakdown,” Danylovych’s father told CPJ.
In Belarus, Ksenia Lutskina also does not receive appropriate medical care in spite of suffering from a brain tumor that has grown while she serves an eight-year sentence.
Punishment beyond prison
Many journalists face curbs on their freedom even after they’ve served their time. This not only affects their livelihoods, but allows repressive governments to continue silencing their voices.
In Russia, for example, Andrey Novashov is banned from working as a journalist for a year after serving his eight-month sentence of correctional labor. Aleksandr Valov, who was released in March 2023 after serving a full six-year sentence, has to check in with the police every week and remains under “administrative monitoring.” He also is restricted from leaving the Black Sea city of Sochi for two years and, while not formally banned from working as a journalist, he told CPJ nobody wanted to give a job to a known government critic.
In Vietnam, five journalists – Doan Kien Giang, Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Phouc Trung Bao, Le The Thang, and Nguyen Thanh Nha – from the now-defunct independent Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper) Facebook-based news outlet – were banned from working as journalists for three years after serving their sentences on anti-state charges.
In Iran, Nasim Soltanbeygi, who reported on Amini’s death, was sentenced to a two-year ban on leaving the country and a two-year ban on joining a political group or assembly in addition to her 3.5 year sentence for spreading propaganda against the system and colluding against national security.
In China, where prisoners are sent to political re-education camps or kept in prison after their sentences end, the fate of a group of students who worked for Ilham Tohti, the jailed-for-life founder of Xinjiang news website Uighurbiz, remains unknown.
Egypt, too, has a history of limiting journalists’ activities after they’ve served their sentences. Egyptian photojournalist and CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, was banned from international travel for five years after being released from prison in 2019.
Inevitably, a snapshot recording the number of journalists in prison on a given day reflects only part of the picture. Rankings can be rollercoasters, and a lower number of incarcerated reporters does not indicate more tolerance for press freedom. Cases in point include countries with “revolving door” policies like Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Syria.
Eritrea, with 16 journalists in jail, is the world’s seventh-worst jailer of journalists and the worst on the African continent. Those held in Eritrea include some of the longest known cases of journalists imprisoned around the world; none has ever been charged.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of journalists jailed on December 1 rose to 47 from 31 in 2022 and 30 in 2021, with Ethiopia (8) and Cameroon (6) ranking as the second- and third-worst in the region.
The number of jailed Ethiopian journalists reflects the difficult environment for the media. Despite the signing in 2022 of a peace agreement that ended two years of civil war, parts of Ethiopia remain restive and conflict is raging in the country’s Amhara State between regional militia and federal forces. All eight journalists in CPJ’s census were arrested in 2023 after covering this conflict.
The data also reflects media crackdowns in Senegal, Zambia, Angola, and Madagascar. Senegal, which has five journalists jailed, has only appeared on the census twice previously (2008 and 2022) with one jailed journalist in each of those years.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Angola, Burundi, and Nigeria, all had one journalist listed in 2023. Madagascar, appearing for the first time on the census, also held one journalist. The charges brought against DRC’s Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala – a combined application of the penal code and a new digital code and press law enabling authorities to prosecute and imprison journalists for sharing “false news” and for sharing information electronically – underscored concerns about the ongoing criminalization of journalism.
Asia remains the region with the highest number of journalists in jail. Outside of the leading jailers of China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, journalists were also behind bars in India, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
India, which holds seven journalists, has used security laws including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act to silence the media. (repetition) Afghanistan had one journalist in prison as of December, but the Taliban’s crackdown on Afghan journalists and media has not eased. There were at least 16 other journalists arrested – and later released – throughout the year, with the Taliban accusing some of them of reporting for exiled media.
In the Philippines, the media environment under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. remains harsh, but overall journalists have seen less overt antagonism than under his predecessor, with Frenchie Mae Cumpio remaining as the one journalist in prison in the Southeast Asian country, which was once a regional bastion of press freedom. Cumpio has been behind bars for nearly four years on what her lawyers call trumped-up illegal arms and terror finance charges.
Europe and Central Asia
Tajikistan continues to be the top jailer of journalists in Central Asia, with seven journalists serving prison sentences of between seven and 20 years – all of them convicted since late 2022. A CPJ visit to the country in late 2023 found that the harsh sentences have exacerbated a pervasive climate of fear and self-censorship among journalists in a media environment already decimated by years of government pressure.
In late 2023, the press freedom situation also deteriorated rapidly in Azerbaijan, with a wave of journalist detentions ahead of presidential elections due in February 2024. Four journalists and a media worker were detained before December 1, and at least three others since then. Four held on December 1 were from prominent investigative outlet Abzas Media – known for its corruption investigations into senior state officials – and were arrested amid a decline in Azerbaijani-Western relations following Azerbaijan’s military recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijani authorities accusing U.S. and European embassies and donor organizations of funding the outlet illegally.
Turkey’s 13 imprisoned journalists marks a sharp decrease from the 40 documented in CPJ’s 2022 census, but the world’s longest-imprisoned female journalist, Hatice Duman, remains behind bars serving a life sentence and her retrial did not bring any change in 2023. Also, many journalists released in 2023 are still under judicial control, which means they must report to police and may be banned from foreign travel, or free pending investigations or trials. CPJ’s two fact-finding visits to Turkey in late 2023 found that the lower number of journalists in detention does not reflect an improvement in the press freedom environment in the country.
Middle East and North Africa
Egypt, routinely among the world’s worst jailers, tied with Turkey for the eighth-highest number of jailed journalists globally – 13 – in the 2023 census. Saudi Arabia was ninth, with 10 journalists behind bars.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iraqi Kurdistan have all expanded the use of false news, terrorism, and anti-state charges against journalists in recent years. Egyptian authorities regularly work around legislation limiting prisoners’ pretrial detention to two years by filing additional charges to extend that period. Cases in point: freelancer Mohamed Said Fahmy, has spent more than four and a half years in pretrial detention after being arrested on false news and terrorism charges in 2018. He was scheduled for release in 2020 and 2021, but his detention was extended after prosecutors added further charges. Mostafa Mohamed Saad, a senior cameraman for Qatari broadcasting network Al-Jazeera, has been held in pretrial detention in Cairo on terrorism and false news charges since 2019.
No new jailings were reported from Bahrain and Syria, which still held five journalists each in 2023, or from Morocco and Algeria, which each held three. Iraq’s four jailed journalists included one new prisoner in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Tunisia, Khalifa Guesmi was taken into custody in September to serve a five-year prison sentence on charges of disclosing national security information. Earlier in the year, an appeals court had increased his sentence from one to five years.
Latin America and the Caribbean
The relatively low numbers of journalists jailed in Latin America and the Caribbean – one each in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba – belie the threats to media in a region where other countries, notably Honduras and El Salvador, continue to undermine press freedom and where numerous journalists have been forced into exile.
In Guatemala, a pattern of anti-press attacks has attempted to censor and silence independent and investigative outlets. José Rubén Zamora remains in prison even after a Guatemalan court overturned his June 2023 conviction on money laundering and ordered a retrial, scheduled for February 2024. Zamora has been forced to change lawyers eight times since being jailed in July 2022, with four of his lawyers facing criminal charges in apparent retribution for defending him in court. Government pressure forced the shutdown of his independent newspaper, elPeriódico, in May 2023.
In Nicaragua, freelance reporter Victor Ticay is serving eight years in prison on anti-state and false news charges – accusations that fit a pattern of legal harassment, intimidation, and criminal charges against independent journalists in Nicaragua as President Daniel Ortega’ has escalated efforts to stifle free expression.
Arlene Getz is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Now based in New York, she has reported from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East as a foreign correspondent, editor, and editorial executive for Newsweek. Prior to joining CPJ, she spent nine years at Reuters, where she was the editor in charge of the service’s global Commentary section.
Editor’s note: Numbers for each prison census are adjusted yearly as CPJ learns of arrests, releases, or deaths in prison. The numbers for CPJ’s 2022 census have been revised from 363 to 367 in accordance with this policy. For the most recent data, see cpj.org/data/imprisoned/
Database reporting by Samir Alsharif, Anna Brakha, Beh Lih Yi, Joan Chirwa, Shawn Crispin, Doja Daoud, Ignacio Delgado Culebras, Sonali Dhawan, Geralda Embalo, Natalie Gryvnyak, Iris Hsu, Nick Lewis, Kunal Majumder, Mohamed Mandour, Sherif Mansour, Scott Mayemba, Muthoki Mumo, Moussa Ngom, Ozgur Ogret, Angela Quintal, Jonathan Rozen, Gulnoza Said, Soran Rashid, Waliullah Rahmani, Yegi Rezaian, Dánae Vilchez, Cristina Zahar
Editing of prisoner profiles by Arlene Getz, Kathy Jones, Naomi Zeveloff, Katy Migiro, Sarah Spicer, Jennifer Dunham, Suzannah Gonzales, and Tom Barkley