Imprisonment of journalists worldwide reached a record high in 2012, according to a comprehensive study by the press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The research adumbrates details of the worst excesses of offending countries, identifying a total of 232 individuals behind bars - an increase of 53 on its 2011 tally. The list take the form of a snapshot of those incarcerated as of 12.01am on December 1, 2012; it thus does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released at other points throughout the year.
The report identifies Turkey, Iran and China as having the most egregious records, with the three countries doing much to swell the overall total to its highest point since the CPJ first began conducting surveys in 1990. Eritrea and Syria were additionally classified as among the very worst offenders, with Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia completing the top ten. Anti-democratic regimes in such countries were cited by the study as displaying evidence of extensive, autocratic and indiscriminate use of vague anti-state laws, such as terrorism, treason and subversion, in order to silence dissent and political opposition without so much as a perfunctory concession either to due process or to the rule of law.
Turkey holds the ignominious title of world’s worst place to be a journalist, with 49 reporters and editors held in custody. Ambiguously worded anti-terror legislation ‘makes no distinction between journalists exercising freedom of expression and [individuals] aiding terrorism,’ said Mehmet Ali Birand, an editor with the Istanbul-based station ‘Kanal D,’ quoted in the Guardian. Iran, second worst with 45 currently in jail, is in the throes of a governmental crackdown that traces its origins to the acrimonious 2009 presidential election; and in China, at number three with 32 incarcerated, at least 19 of the journalists held are Tibetans or Uighurs jailed for documenting ethnic tensions that first escalated in 2008. ‘Journalists who report on areas deemed 'most sensitive' by the state—China's troubled ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang—are most vulnerable,’ said Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
‘CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs’ is a statement whose emotive power stems from its essential simplicity. No Eritrean detainee has ever been publicly charged with a crime or brought before a court for trial. The same is true in President Assad’s Syria. Such facts need no embellishment, for they are self-evidently inexplicable. Whilst Burma emerges from the report as a rare beacon of light as it gingerly treads the boards of representative democracy, the trends highlighted by the CPJ are both deeply worrying and, perhaps, a salutary warning for more enlightened regimes against state interference – at whatever level – into the operations of a free press.