“There is only one outlet for truth, which makes all other voices rumours.” So declared Zhang Zhan, a Chinese journalist who, at the height of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, offered first-hand accounts that often contradicted the government's official narrative. In the end, the government agreed with her, and deemed her a rumour-merchant. Ms Zhang was arrested in May for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, an offence often used to prosecute activists and dissidents, and later charged with spreading “false information”. On December 28th the 37-year-old was sentenced to four years in prison.
Ms Zhang is one of at least 274 journalists imprisoned globally in 2020, according to an annual survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based advocacy group—a record high. For the second year in a row China locked away most, with 47 journalists behind bars on December 1st. Turkey came in second place, with 37. Some 12% of reporters jailed in 2020 were detained, like Ms Zhang, on charges of “fake news”, an offence which accounted for around 1% of detentions between 2010 and 2013 but has been increasing steadily since then (last year it reached 13%). Still, the majority—67%—of reporters serving sentences or in detention in 2020 were charged with anti-state crimes. Nearly one-fifth faced no charges at all.
Many journalists were locked up because of their reporting on the pandemic. At least two have died after contracting the virus in custody. On July 13th Mohamed Monir, an Egyptian journalist who had been arrested on charges of spreading misinformation, died after contracting covid-19 in Cairo’s Tora prison complex. On July 18th David Romero Ellner, a Honduran, died after falling ill with covid-19 while imprisoned in Támara National Penitentiary (he had been serving a ten-year sentence for defaming a former prosecutor).
Others were punished for their coverage of other politically sensitive subjects. After protests erupted in Belarus after the country’s rigged election on August 9th, ten journalists were jailed. The former Soviet republic had not featured on the CPJ’s census since 2014. At least seven journalists are detained in Ethiopia, where armed conflict broke out in November, up from one in 2019. All of the 24 journalists detained in Saudi Arabia have been in prison since before the pandemic.
The CPJ reckons that there has been an erosion of democratic values around the world in 2020, in part because of what it describes as a “lack of global leadership” from America and others. Although no journalists in America were in jail on December 1st when the CPJ conducted its tally, an unprecedented 121 had been arrested in the previous 11 months. None have been convicted, although at least 12 still face charges for crimes such as failure to disperse and obstructing a public officer, notably as they covered protests against police brutality.
To the extent that leadership from Washington can encourage other countries to treat their journalists better, there is reason to hope that 2021 might be a better year than 2020. Whereas President Donald Trump has referred to the media as the “enemy of the people”, Joe Biden, his successor, has said that a free press is “fundamental” to democracy.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.