Almost Half the World’s Imprisoned Journalists Are in These 3 Countries

In an inglorious list of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, three Asian countries lead the way for the number of journalists languishing in prison.
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Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, on Oct. 18, 2021. AP Photo

Record numbers of journalists are being locked up worldwide today, with a notable concentration of cases in Asia, according to a report released on Thursday by advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

Of the 488 media professionals currently imprisoned around the world, nearly half (223) are in China, Myanmar and Vietnam. China, by far the worst offender for the fifth straight year, topped the list with 127 jailed journalists, followed by Myanmar with 53, and Vietnam with 43. 

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China is also the biggest jailer of female journalists with 19, the report said, adding that the 60 female journalists jailed around the world this year is the highest yet. Myanmar has nine female journalists in detention, while Vietnam has four.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan remained top of the list for the “most dangerous” country worldwide for journalists, with six deaths recorded in 2021. India followed close behind, with four deaths in the past year. 

A small silver lining could be found in the fact that the 46 journalist deaths recorded this year represents the lowest since its records began in 1995. However, RSF said the number of journalists behind bars is the highest yet. The past year saw a 20 percent increase in that number due to crackdowns in Myanmar, Belarus (with 32 jailed journalists), and Hong Kong—where Beijing has imposed a national security law targeting dissidents and critics, eating away at democratic freedoms long enjoyed by the special administrative region.

Not just mere statistics on a page, the past two weeks have seen this dangerous and deadly trend for journalists in the Asia-Pacific region embodied in three cases. 

Earlier this week, Myanmar photojournalist Ko Soe Naing died in military custody following his arrest last Friday while covering protests in Yangon. Ko Soe Naing, who was in good health when he was arrested, was subject to a “violent interrogation” by his military captors. In February, the Myanmar junta seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, and has cracked down on protesters and journalists since.

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This week in Vietnam—a one-party state ruthless in its crushing of dissent and free press—a court sentenced journalist and dissident Pham Doan Trang to nine years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state.” Pham Doan Trang is one of very few dissenting voices in Vietnam, and Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson condemned Tuesday’s verdict as a “searing indictment of everything that is wrong with authoritarian Vietnam today.”

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, under the iron-fisted rule of President Rodrigo Duterte, journalist Jess Malabanan was shot dead on Dec. 8. Malabanan had worked on a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters report on Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, and had been keeping a low profile in the provincial property where he was killed after receiving death threats over his reporting. He was the 22nd journalist to be murdered in the Philippines since Duterte came to power in 2016. 

Last week, Nobel Peace Prize 2021 laureate Maria Ressa mentioned the murdered Malabanan, along with imprisoned Filipino journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai, and Myanmar publisher Sonny Swe, among her embattled colleagues as she accepted her award in Norway on Dec. 10.

“We need to help independent journalism survive, first by giving greater protection to journalists and standing up against states which target journalists,” said Ressa, who leads Rappler, a fiercely independent newsroom in the Philippines, and herself faces a litany of politically-motivated charges that could land her up to 100 years in prison.

Ressa shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Dimitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, a rare independent newspaper in Russia, with the dual award highlighting the shared threats faced by journalists working in different contexts worldwide. 

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