The inhumane treatment meted out to journalists in Belarus and Turkey received particular mentions as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual report on press freedom, including a prison census of how many reporters have been jailed for their work.
The CPJ concluded: “It’s been an especially bleak year for defenders of press freedom. CPJ’s 2021 prison census found that the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record of 293, up from a revised total of 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists were killed because of their coverage so far this year; 18 others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets.
“China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, with 50 behind bars. Myanmar soared to the second slot after the media crackdown that followed its February 1 military coup. Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus, respectively, rounded out the top five.”
Looking at Belarus, the CPJ observed that “Belarus leader Aleksandr Lukashenko… showed how little he cared about public opinion and how much he cared about staying in power by the extreme measures taken to arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich: the outrageous diversion of a civilian RyanAir flight to take Pratasevich off the plane.
“Belarus now has at least 19 journalists behind bars, up from 10 last year and the highest since CPJ started keeping data on imprisoned journalists in 1992.
“One of those in custody is Aliaksandr Ivulin, a reporter for independent sports news site Tribuna. While Ivulin is facing up to four years in prison on charges of violating public order, one of his fans was sentenced to 14 days in detention for wearing a club shirt with the number 25 to a match at Ivulin’s local football club. The reason? That’s the number worn by Ivulin when he played for the club.
“In this grim year for free expression, that kind of intolerance leaves little room for optimism that the number of jailed journalists will stop setting records anytime soon.”
Assessing this year’s press freedom situation in Turkey, the CPJ said: “It’s true that some unexpected countries did buck the trend of putting more journalists in prison. Turkey, once the world’s worst jailer of journalists, is now ranked sixth in the CPJ census after releasing 20 prisoners in the last year. Eighteen remain. Saudi Arabia’s release of 10 prisoners – it’s holding 14 after no new journalists were recorded on the 2021 census – means it is no longer among the five biggest offenders.
“However, it would be naive to see lower prisoner numbers as a sign of a change of heart toward the press. As CPJ has noted, Turkey’s crackdown after a failed coup attempt in 2016 effectively eradicated the country’s mainstream media and prompted many journalists to leave the profession. Turkey’s prison count is also declining as the government allows more journalists out on parole to await trial or appeal outcomes.”
The CPJ said that the reasons for the relentless climb in the numbers of detained journalists – this is the sixth consecutive year that CPJ’s census has recorded at least 250 incarcerated – differ between countries. But all, it said, reflected a stark trend: a growing intolerance of independent reporting.
“Emboldened autocrats are increasingly ignoring due process and flouting international norms to keep themselves in power. In a world preoccupied with COVID-19 and trying to prioritize issues like climate change, repressive governments are clearly aware that public outrage at human rights abuses is blunted and democratic governments have less appetite for political or economic retaliation,” the watchdog added.
Among cases raised by CPJ recently are the alleged beating of Uzbek blogger Fatima Jurayeva who was investigating a state electricity company, the conviction of four former Serbian state security officers for the 1999 murder of journalist and owner of Serbia’s first private daily Slavko Curuvija, the Polish authorities’ detaining and harassment in November of journalists covering refugee crossings from Belarus and Russia’s fining in November of Nobel Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov under the foreign agent law.