Journalists in prison reach 15-year high

The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide reached a 15-year high in 2011, driven by repressive states seeking to choke the flow of information, according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In its annual census of imprisoned journalists, CPJ identified 179 writers, editors, and photojournalists behind bars on December 1, an increase of 34 from 2010. Nearly half of those held were online journalists, while about 45 percent of the imprisoned were freelancers. Iran tops the list for the second consecutive year with 42 journalists in prison, followed by Eritrea (28), China (27), Burma (12), and Vietnam (9).

"Independent journalists, who often lack the institutional support necessary to resist legal pressures or defend themselves in court, are bearing the brunt of this unprecedented rise in the incarceration of journalists," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "The media gives voice to the grievances of citizens and helps to hold the powerful to account. Their freedom to report represents our freedom to know."

Iran, the world's worst jailer of journalists, maintains a revolving prison door with furloughs and new arrests; subjects prisoners to inhumane treatment; and targets their legal counsel. A relentless crackdown on the press has led 65 journalists to flee Iran since 2009, CPJ research shows. In China, the number of journalists jailed was consistent with the past few years, and reflects pressure on those who seek to give voice to Tibetan and Uighur minority groups.

Recent signs of democratic reform have led the U.S. to begin restoring relations with Burma, yet Burmese journalists remain locked away, and the risk of being muzzled with jail time continues. None of Burma's recent media reforms have been fortified with amendments to existing legislation. Those laws include the harsh Electronics Act, which provides for lengthy prison terms for anyone who sends unsanctioned information over the Internet.

"Burma's transition to democracy will not be legitimate without legal reform to ensure press freedom," Simon said. "Draconian laws restricting reporting must be abolished, and imprisoned journalists immediately released."

Most journalists in CPJ's annual census were imprisoned on anti-state charges, while the second most common charge was violation of censorship rules. The vast majority of those jailed were local journalists held by their own governments. Sixty-five journalists, or over a third of those included in the CPJ census, were being held without any publicly disclosed charge.

"It is an abomination that of 28 journalists imprisoned in Eritrea, not a single one has ever been publicly charged with a crime," Simon said. "If they cannot be charged then they cannot be held. We demand the release of these journalists." Among those locked away is Swedish-Eritrean editor Dawit Isaac, who has been held since 2001.

CPJ registered some improvements: In the Americas, although authorities continue to detain journalists on a short-term basis, not a single journalist was in jail for work-related reasons on December 1st. Imprisonments also continued to decline gradually in Europe and Central Asia, where only eight journalists were jailed, the lowest tally in six years.

CPJ's annual census is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2011. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at Journalists who either disappear or are abducted by nonstate entities such as criminal gangs or militant groups are not included in the prison census. Their cases are classified as "missing" or "abducted."

Post published in: Africa News

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