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There are at least 220 journalists imprisoned around the world, with 132 of them held on anti-state charges of terrorism or subversion, according to a report released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The CPJ census on jailed journalists indicates that 2014 is the second worst year for reporters behind bars since the organization started conducting its annual census in 1990. The worst year was 2012, when 232 journalists were jailed.
The report does not count journalists being held by nonstate actors, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which the CPJ estimates is holding 20 journalists.
The number of journalists held by nonstate actors — about 80 have been taken by various groups since the Syrian conflict started in 2011 — is unprecedented, according to Robert Mahoney, deputy director at the CPJ.
“We’ve never seen so many journalists held captive — for ransom or other reasons — by nonstate actors,” he said.
Mahoney said it’s clear that the journalism landscape is shifting. “The targeting of journalists has been increasing to alarming proportions,” he said. “Journalists are now losing the protected observer status that they had, and now they’ve become the story rather than being the witness to the story to some groups.”
China fears chain reaction
The world’s leading jailer of journalists is China, which is holding 44 reporters, according to the CPJ.
Gao Wenqian, a policy adviser with Human Rights in China, said there are two principal reasons for the new round of crackdowns: The increased outspokenness of journalists “in response to promises made by President Xi Jinping during his early days in office.”
“The escalated crackdown on journalists over the past year has been an effort by the authorities to control the media as they realized that things would get quickly out of their control if people really practiced what Xi Jinping said,” said Gao, adding that these fears are “compounded by the economic slowdown in recent years,” which he said has “sharpened social conflict.”
Also worth noting, said Gao, is that more than half the detained journalists are Tibetan or Uighur. “The persecution of ethnic minorities is part of the overall human rights situation,” he said. “The fear is that separatist dissent could produce a chain reaction in Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have played a role in China’s media crackdowns, said activist and blogger Wen Yunchao. “The umbrella revolution [in Hong Kong] will certainly make the lives of Chinese journalists harder,” he said, adding that over 100 Chinese citizens have been detained and arrested for supporting the protests, including journalists.
“Under the name of protecting secrecy, the government has further tightened the control of the press. Therefore, more Chinese journalists got arrested last year,” said Wen. “This doesn’t mean that journalists are more outspoken today than they were before. In fact, journalists have been quite silent.”
State secrets vs. free media
Increasingly, the CPJ study notes, governments are enacting laws that facilitate media crackdowns based on the notion of state security, as is the case with a new law in Japan.
It’s an argument used by major jailers of journalists, such as China, Iran and Egypt, where the number of jailed reporters has double since 2013, to 12 identified cases.
Although Turkey, deemed “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists by the CPJ in 2012 and 2013, released a number of reporters this year, a recent raid resulting in the detention of at least 23 journalists employed by news organizations linked to a cleric who is at odds with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised red flags.
“In the case of Turkey, definitely, it is a regressive step. That’s a disturbing trend because Turkey is an important democracy in the region," said Mahoney.