The number of jailed journalists around the world set a new record in 2021, which has been “a particularly dark year” for press freedom advocates, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report published on December 9.
CPJ’s prison census in 2021 found that the number of journalists jailed for their work reached a new world record of 293, up from a revised 2020 total of 280. It was the sixth consecutive year that CPJ’s census has registered at least 250 imprisoned journalists.
In addition, 19 journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work as of December 1, 2021, up from 22 in 2020. Eighteen others have died in circumstances too murky to determine if they were being targeted, according to the report.
Three other people were killed this year while reporting on conflict zones, and two others were killed while covering protests or street clashes that turned to death.
China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, with 50 behind bars. Myanmar fell to second place after a crackdown on the media that followed a military coup in February. Egypt, Vietnam and Belarus round out the top five.
Belarus now has 19 journalists behind bars, up from 10 last year and the highest since CPJ began keeping data on jailed journalists in 1992.
It is an example of how “emboldened autocrats increasingly ignore due process and flout international standards to stay in power,” CPJ said.
The report cites the high-profile case of opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was on a commercial flight that was forced to land in Minsk in May. Authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered the hijacking as the Ryanair plane flew over the country’s airspace in order to arrest Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Pratasevich is accused of playing a role in the civil unrest that followed a contested presidential election in August 2020. He faces up to 15 years in prison. He and Sapega have been living under house arrest since the incident.
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Among the countries improving their rankings is Turkey, once the world’s worst jailer of journalists. He is ranked sixth in CPJ’s census after releasing 20 prisoners last year. Eighteen remain in prison.
But CPJ noted that Turkey’s crackdown after a failed coup in 2016 effectively eradicated the country’s mainstream media and prompted many journalists to quit the profession. The number of prisons in the country is also falling as the government allows more journalists on parole to await trial.
Saudi Arabia’s release of 10 prisoners took it from top five to eighth. However, the effect of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Riyadh government critic who wrote for the Washington Post, as well as several new detentions in 2019, likely silenced many journalists. Fourteen journalists are still imprisoned there.
The report also said that as the world faced challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in 2021, repressive governments were aware that public outrage over human rights violations was “blunt,” according to the report.
The data reflect a general trend towards a growing intolerance of independent reports.
“In this bleak year for free speech, this kind of intolerance leaves little room for optimism that the number of jailed journalists will stop breaking records anytime soon,” CPJ said.