A deplorable year for press freedom: CPJ finds record high behind bars

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CPJ has found that the number of journalists jailed around the world for their work has hit a new high in 2020, a statistic with dire implications for the future of press freedom.

The pandemic, coupled with protests in numerous countries, created a perfect storm for an increase in journalist detentions. China was the world’s top jailer yet again, and Belarus and Ethiopia saw increased detentions amid recent unrest. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, governments delayed trials, restricted visitors, and disregarded the increased health risks faced by prisoners.

This year, five journalists on CPJ’s prison census were jailed for content they shared on social media. Among them was Roohollah Zam, an Iranian journalist executed by hanging on December 12. CPJ Technology Editor Madeline Earp found that global tech giants’ reasons for taking down content were often unclear, underscoring longstanding transparency concerns. Earp argues that to protect journalists, tech companies must provide more public information about content removal.

While no journalists were jailed in the United States at the time of CPJ’s prison census, an unprecedented 110 members of the press were arrested or criminally charged in the country this year. At least 12 are still facing criminal charges, some of which carry possible jail terms. A polarized political climate, militarized law enforcement, and vitriol toward the media have resulted in a breakdown of norms that once protected journalists. As CPJ Editorial Director Elana Beiser notes in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “Under Trump, the United States abdicated its role as the global beacon of press freedom.”

Global press freedom updates

  • Journalist Malalai Maiwand shot dead in Afghanistan
  • Mexican journalist Jaime Castaño shot dead after photographing crime scene
  • Syrian journalist Hussein Khattab shot and killed while reporting in Aleppo governorate
  • Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Yezidi faces charges, arrest attempts; goes into hiding
  • Kurdish Iraqi forces arrest NRT reporter while covering protests
  • Supporters of Lebanese president attack Al-Jadeed TV office in Beirut
  • Hong Kong police charge Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai with ‘foreign collusion’ under national security law; separately, Hong Kong police charge two reporters with obstruction over coverage of May protests
  • Authorities detain Chinese staff member of Bloomberg News in Beijing
  • Philippine police arrest journalist Lady Ann Salem for alleged weapons possession
  • Bangladesh High Court directs authorities to “block” journalist’s social media channels
  • Journalists attacked, deported ahead of January elections in Uganda
  • Liberian journalist Gloria Tamba in hiding amid threats
  • Cuban journalist Luz Escobar barred from leaving home since December 4
  • Guatemalan journalists Marvin del Cid and Sonny Figueroa receive mailed threat
  • CPJ calls on North Carolina county to grant court access, drop charges against journalist
  • CPJ joins calls for accountability, ending of crackdown in Belarus


COIVD-19 has been devastating for people around the world, but the pandemic has had an outsized impact on press freedom, as detailed in CPJ’s latest prison report and research. Already this year, at least two journalists have died after contracting COVID-19 in custody.

CPJ’s #FreeThePress campaign, in partnership with 192 groups, called on world leaders to release all jailed journalists, and asked U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to take action on behalf of those still behind bars. This week, the secretary-general’s spokesperson noted in a briefing that Guterres was “appalled” at the record numbers in CPJ’s census this year and called for the release of all imprisoned journalists. Watch the briefing here.

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