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CPJ's 2009 prison census: Freelance journalists under fire

Demonstrators demand the release of documentary filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, jailed in China after interviewing Tibetans. (AFP)

New York, December 8, 2009—Freelancers now make up nearly 45 percent of all journalists jailed worldwide, a dramatic recent increase that reflects the evolution of the global news business, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. In its annual census of imprisoned journalists, CPJ found a total of 136 reporters, editors, and photojournalists behind bars on December 1, an increase of 11 from the 2008 tally. (Read detailed accounts of each imprisoned journalist.) A massive crackdown in Iran, where 23 journalists are now in jail, fueled the worldwide increase.

China continued to be the world’s worst jailer of journalists, a dishonor it has held for 11 consecutive years. Iran, Cuba, Eritrea, and Burma round out the top five jailers from among the 26 nations that imprison journalists. Each nation has persistently placed among the world’s worst in detaining journalists.

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At least 60 freelance journalists are behind bars worldwide, nearly double the number from just three years ago. CPJ research shows the number of jailed freelancers has grown along with two trends: The Internet has enabled individual journalists to publish on their own, and some news organizations, watchful of costs, rely increasingly on freelancers rather than staffers for international coverage. Freelance journalists are especially vulnerable to imprisonment because they often do not have the legal and monetary support that news organizations can provide to staffers.

“The days when journalists went off on dangerous assignments knowing they had the full institutional weight of their media organizations behind them are receding into history,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Today, journalists on the front lines are increasingly working independently. The rise of online journalism has opened the door to a new generation of reporters, but it also means they are vulnerable.”

The number of online journalists in prison continued a decade-long rise, CPJ’s census found. At least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors are imprisoned, constituting half of all journalists now in jail. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 51 cases in 2009. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

Although antistate allegations such as sedition are the most common charge used to imprison journalists worldwide, CPJ’s census identified an alarming rise in the number of cases in which governments are bypassing due process and filing no charge at all. In 39 cases—more than a quarter of the overall census—authorities have disclosed no formal charges. The tactic is used by countries as wide-ranging as Eritrea, Iran, and the United States.

Without the legal protection of formal charges or court proceedings, at least 20 of these journalists are being held in secret locations. Many are in the custody of the Eritrean government, which has refused to even confirm whether its detainees are still alive. Unconfirmed online reports have said that three journalists jailed in Eritrea may have died in custody. CPJ continues to list these journalists on its 2009 census as a means of holding the government responsible for their fates.

The number of journalists imprisoned in China has dropped over the past several years, but with 24 still behind bars the nation remains the world’s worst jailer of the press. Of those in jail in China, 22 are freelancers. The imprisoned include Dhondup Wangchen, a documentary filmmaker who was detained in 2008 after recording footage in Tibet and sending it to colleagues overseas. A 25-minute film titled “Jigdrel” (Leaving Fear Behind), produced from the footage, features ordinary Tibetans talking about their lives under Chinese rule. Officials in Xining, Qinghai province, charged the filmmaker with inciting separatism.

J.S. Tissainayagam, an online and print journalist in Sri Lanka, is serving 20 years on antistate charges. (AFP) Most of those imprisoned in Iran, the world’s second-worst jailer, were swept up in the government’s post-election crackdown on dissent and the news media. Of those, about half are online journalists. They include Fariba Pajooh, a freelance reporter for online, newspaper, and radio outlets. Radio France Internationale reported that she was charged with "propagating against the regime” and pressured to make a false confession.

“Not long ago, Iran boasted a vigorous and vital press community,” CPJ’s Simon added. “When the government cracked down on print media, journalists migrated online and fueled the rise of the Farsi blogosphere. Today, many of Iran’s best journalists are in jail or in exile, and the public debate has been squelched alongside the pro-democracy movement.”

Cuba, the third-worst jailer, is holding 22 writers and editors in prison, all but two of whom were rounded up in Fidel Castro’s massive 2003 crackdown on the independent press. Many have seen their health deteriorate in inhumane and unsanitary prisons. The detainees include Normando Hernández González, who suffers from cardiovascular ailments and knee problems so severe that even standing is difficult. Hernández González was moved to a prison hospital in late October.

Eritrea is the world’s fourth-worst jailer, imprisoning 19 journalists as of December 1. Eritrean authorities have jailed not only independent reporters but their own, state-employed journalists as well. The government arrested six state journalists in early 2009 on suspicion that they had provided information to foreign news organizations and Web sites.

With nine journalists behind bars, Burma is the world’s fifth-worst jailer. Those in custody include the video-journalist known publicly as “T,” who reported news for the Oslo-based media organization Democratic Voice of Burma and who helped film an award-winning international documentary, “Orphans of the Burmese Cyclone.” Journalism is so dangerous in Burma, one of the world’s most censored countries, that undercover reporters such as “T” are a crucial conduit to the world.

The Eurasian nations of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan placed sixth and seventh on CPJ’s dishonor roll. Uzbekistan is holding seven journalists, among them Dilmurod Saiid, a freelancer who exposed government agricultural abuses. Azerbaijan is jailing six reporters and editors, including investigative journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, a 2009 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee. A seventh Azerbaijani journalist, Novruzali Mamedov died in state custody in August after authorities denied him adequate medical care.

Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJ’s analysis:

  • About 47 percent of journalists in the census are jailed under antistate charges such as sedition, divulging state secrets, and acting against national interests, CPJ found. Many of them are being held by the Chinese, Iranian, and Cuban governments.
  • In about 12 percent of cases, governments have used a variety of charges unrelated to journalism to retaliate against critical writers, editors, and photojournalists. Such charges range from regulatory violations to drug possession. In the cases included in this census, CPJ has determined that the charges were most likely lodged in reprisal for the journalist’s work.
  • Violations of censorship rules, the next most common charge, are applied in about 5 percent of cases. Charges of criminal defamation, reporting “false” news, and engaging in ethnic or religious “insult” constitute the other charges filed against journalists in the census.
  • Internet and print journalists make up the bulk of the census. Radio journalists compose the next largest professional category, accounting for 7 percent of cases. Television journalists and documentary filmmakers each account for 3 percent.
  • The worldwide tally of 136 reflects a 9 percent increase over 2008 and represents the third-highest number recorded by CPJ in the past decade. (The decade high came in 2002, when CPJ recorded 139 journalists in jail.)
  • The United States, which is holding freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam without charge in Iraq, made CPJ’s list of countries jailing journalists for the sixth consecutive year. During this period, U.S. military authorities have jailed numerous journalists in Iraq—some for days, others for months at a time—without charge or due process. U.S. authorities appear to be using this tactic less frequently over the past two years.
CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. The organization has sent letters expressing its serious concerns to each country that has imprisoned a journalist. Over the past year, CPJ advocacy helped lead to the release of at least 45 imprisoned journalists.

CPJ’s list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2009. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year. Journalists remain on CPJ’s list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody.

Journalists who either disappear or are abducted by nonstate entities, including criminal gangs, rebels, or militant groups, are not included on the imprisoned list. Their cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.”

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