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Watchdog Raises Alarm About 'New Normal' as Hundreds of Journalists Worldwide Jailed for Doing Their Jobs

"The terrible global assault on journalists that has intensified in the past few years shows no sign of abating."

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone are escorted by police as they leave after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, in this file photo taken on August 20 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang)

For the third consecutive year, the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) has documented at least 251 cases of reporters across the globe being jailed for doing their jobs, with more than half imprisoned in Turkey, China, and Egypt after being accused of "anti-governmental activities."

"It looks like a trend now," report author Elana Beiser told Reuters about the near-record numbers. "It looks like the new normal."

"The past three years have recorded the highest number of jailed journalists since CPJ began keeping track, with consecutive records set in 2016 and 2017," the report explains. While the total figure dropped slightly this year, concerns over global crackdowns on press freedom remain high.

"The terrible global assault on journalists that has intensified in the past few years shows no sign of abating. It is unacceptable that 251 journalists are in jail around the world just for covering the news," CPJ executive director Joel Simon said in a statement. "The broader cost is being borne by all those who care about the flow of news and information. The tyrants who use imprisonment to impose censorship cannot be allowed to get away with it."

As the report details:

The majority of those imprisoned globally—70 percent—are facing anti-state charges such as belonging to or aiding groups deemed by authorities as terrorist organizations. The number imprisoned on charges of false news rose to 28 globally, compared with nine just two years ago. Egypt jailed the most journalists on false news charges with 19, followed by Cameroon with four, Rwanda with three, and one each in China and Morocco. The increase comes amid heightened global rhetoric about "fake news," of which U.S. President Donald Trump is the leading voice.

The higher number of prisoners in China—with 47 behind bars—reflects the latest wave of persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region. At least 10 journalists in China were detained without charge, all of them in Xinjiang, where the United Nations has accused Beijing of mass surveillance and detention of up to a million people without trial.

It is worth noting that CPJ's overall figure accounts for the hundreds of journalists imprisoned for reporting around the world, but does not include those who are missing or have been killed.

The release of the report follows TIME magazine on Tuesday naming "the guardians and the war on truth," or journalists jailed and killed for their work, as its Person of the Year. One of the covers features Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by a Saudi hit team at the country's consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia ranks fourth on the CPJ's new list, with 16 jailed journalists.

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other officials have raised alarm about Khashoggi's killing, as Beiser pointed out on Twitter Thursday, Turkey is hardly a protector of press freedom. Erdoğan's crackdown has "intensified" since the failed coup in 2016, and with at least 68 journalists imprisoned as of Dec. 1, Turkey is holding more reporters behind bars than any other country on Earth.

Meanwhile, in the United States, "where journalists encountered hostile rhetoric and fatal violence in 2018," the report notes that "although nine were arrested in the course of the year, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which CPJ is a partner," there were none behind bars as of Dec. 1.

However, in line with Trump's hardline immigration policies, it points to at least seven recent cases where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has held foreign journalists seeking asylum due to threats at home "in prolonged detention."

Other key findings highlighted in the report include:

  • Ninety-eight percent of jailed journalists are locals imprisoned by their own governments. The five foreign journalists on CPJ's census include a Ukrainian in Russia and a Russian in Ukraine.
  • Thirteen percent, or 33, of the jailed journalists are female, up from 8 percent last year.
  • Freelancers accounted for 30 percent of jailed journalists, in line with recent years.
  • Politics is the riskiest beat, followed by human rights. Those imprisoned for covering human rights including Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters in Myanmar sentenced to seven years each for violating the Official Secrets Act because of their work uncovering military atrocities in Rakhine state.

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