As Donald Trump continues his relentless attacks against “fake news,” the number of journalists around the world jailed for spreading “false news” has hit record levels, according to a new report released Thursday.
The annual prison census, carried out by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), found at least 251 journalists languishing in prison on Dec. 1, 2018, the third consecutive year at roughly that level. But of those 251, a record 28 were behind bars on charges of “false news,” a big spike from just two years ago, when there were 9 such cases.
Egypt accounted for the most cases of journalists jailed for so-called false news, with 19 behind bars. There were four in Cameroon, three in Rwanda, and one each in China and Morocco.
The report pointed the finger at Trump as “the leading voice” fueling global rhetoric about fake news. “You think #FakeNews rhetoric doesn't have consequences?” tweeted the report’s author, CPJ’s editorial director Elana Beiser.
It also noted that while no journalists are imprisoned in the U.S., reporters there faced fatal violence and hostile rhetoric. In June, five people were killed in a mass shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and a mail bomber who embraced Trump’s media atttacks sent threatening packages to CNN headquarters, among other places, in October.
It’s the third year running that the number of reporters behind bars has topped 250 — a stat that suggested that “the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike,” and had become “the new normal,” according to Beiser.
The report found the high numbers had been sustained by renewed crackdowns in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which, along with Turkey and Eritrea, were the five leading jailers of journalists. Turkey, China, and Egypt alone accounted for more than half the world’s jailed journalists for the third year in a row.
The report found that nearly three-quarters of jailed journalists were facing anti-state charges, such as supporting groups deemed to be terrorist organizations, and the vast majority — 98 percent — were jailed by their own governments.
With 68 reporters behind bars, Turkey remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists — even as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads the global condemnation of Saudi Arabia for the murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
China has 47 journalists in prison — a consequence of the crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim population in the western province of Xinjiang, in which the United Nations estimates up to a million Muslims are detained. In a recent case, award-winning freelance photographer Lu Guang disappeared in Xinjiang last month; Chinese authorities have not disclosed the reason for his arrest.
The report noted that while the U.S. had pressed China repeatedly on trade issues, it had failed to exert any meaningful pressure on human right abuses amid its latest wave of repression.
Egypt has jailed 25 journalists — reflecting a strategy to keep government critics locked up. Saudi Arabia, responsible for the most brutally egregious abuse of a journalist for the murder of Khashoggi, one of 52 journalists killed this year, has also locked up 16 journalists, including four women who have addressed women’s rights in their work.
About a third of those jailed were freelancers — and politics is the riskiest beat to cover, followed by human rights, according to the findings.
The 2018 tally of 251 jailed reporters was a slight drop from last year, when a record 262 were imprisoned, up from a then record 259 in 2016. The report attributed the dip to a new political climate in Ethiopia, where reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed has stopped jailing reporters. The new benchmark is a steep rise from previous years, where figures hovered in the low 200s since 2012, and below 150 prior to 2010.
The CPJ report was released a year to the day that two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested and subsequently sentenced to seven years jail for their reporting exposing a massacre by Myanmar’s army of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The pair, alongside Khashoggi, the journalists at the Capital Gazette, and the head of Philippine news website Rappler — a target for President Rodrigo Duterte — were jointly named TIME magazine’s “person of the year” this week.
Cover: Anti-Beijing protesters hold pictures of jailed veteran Chinese journalist Gao Yu during a rally outside Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong. In a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the group said that after Turkey, the worst offender in 2016 was China, where 38 journalists were in custody on Dec. 1. China had jailed the most journalists worldwide in the previous two years. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)