The number of jailed journalists worldwide set another record in 2021, which was “an especially bleak year” for defenders of press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report issued on December 9.
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. It was the sixth consecutive year that the CPJ’s census recorded at least 250 incarcerated journalists.
In addition, 19 journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work as of December 1, 2021, compared with 22 in all of 2020. Eighteen others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were targeted, the report said.
Three others were killed this year while reporting from conflict zones, and two others were killed covering protests or street clashes that turned deadly.
China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, with 50 behind bars. Myanmar climbed to second-worst after a crackdown on the news media that followed a military coup in February. Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus rounded out the top five.
Belarus now has 19 journalists behind bars, up from 10 last year and the highest since the CPJ started keeping data on imprisoned journalists in 1992.
It is an example of how “emboldened autocrats are increasingly ignoring due process and flouting international norms to keep themselves in power,” the 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 ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered the diversion as the Ryanair jet flew over the country's airspace in order to arrest Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Pratasevich faces charges of playing a role in civil disturbances that followed a disputed 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 ranking was Turkey, once the world’s worst jailer of journalists. It is ranked sixth in the CPJ census after releasing 20 prisoners in the last year. Eighteen remain in jail.
But the CPJ noted that Turkey’s crackdown after a failed coup in 2016 effectively eradicated the country’s mainstream media and prompted many journalists to leave the profession. The country’s prison count is also declining as the government allows more journalists out on parole to await trial.
Saudi Arabia’s release of 10 prisoners moved it out of the top five to eighth. However, the effect of the murder in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the government in Riyadh who wrote for The Washington Post, along with several new detentions in 2019, is likely to have silenced many journalists. Fourteen journalists remain in prison there.
The report also said that as the world dealt with problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in 2021, repressive governments were aware that public outrage over human rights abuses was “blunted,” the report said.
The data reflects a general trend toward a growing intolerance of independent reporting.
“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,” CPJ said.