“Every day I live with the real threat of spending the rest of my life in jail just because I’m a journalist.” On December 10th Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler and the joint winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, warned of increasing risks to her profession. Ms Ressa herself faces charges in her native Philippines that would add up to 100 years in prison. An annual survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based advocacy group, confirms her fears: the number of journalists incarcerated is at a record high.
On December 1st the CPJ counted 293 reporters in prison or otherwise detained. As in 2020, China has imprisoned the most—50 at latest count. Myanmar has surged up the ranking to second place. In May a Ryanair flight between Greece and Lithuania was diverted to Belarus in order for Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist, to be detained by authorities there. Such behaviour has led to Belarus joining the top five.
Seventy per cent of reporters serving sentences or in detention in 2021 were charged with anti-state crimes. But 16% have been incarcerated for spreading “false news”. Nearly one-seventh faced no charges at all. Autocratic regimes are becoming increasingly intolerant of the press and in a world distracted by covid-19, repressive governments are taking advantage. In many countries journalists have been prevented from accessing information and had critical reporting restricted. In others they have been arrested for their coverage of covid.
Conflict has given some rulers a chance to crack down. Since the Burmese military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in February, 26 journalists have been incarcerated; none were in 2020. In Ethiopia, as conflict between government forces and Tigrayan rebels escalated, Abiy Ahmed, the embattled prime minister, imposed harsh emergency laws. The resulting arrests have left Ethiopia the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa after Eritrea, the continent’s gulag state.
Suppression by the Communist Party in Beijing has spread to Hong Kong, which has appeared on CPJ’s census for the first time. Following mass protests against Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, his regime’s assault on press freedoms has intensified. The country now has the highest number of journalists in prison since CPJ started collecting data in 1992. In neighbouring Russia, reporters and media organisations who question President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly repressive regime can now be branded as “foreign agents”.
Autocrats are also looking beyond traditional media. In Rwanda six of seven imprisoned journalists share their reporting primarily on YouTube. Governments also use social media to monitor journalists. Disinformation peddled on social-media platforms is often shared by despotic regimes—which at the same time imprison journalists for spreading “fake news”. The world’s despots are unlikely to become more tolerant of the media soon. So the number of journalists in jail will continue to rise.
Editor’s note: This is our last Highlight. Thank you for reading and engaging with us over the past six years. Content will still be available, but unfortunately will not be updated.