by Carly Alvarez | March 11, 2014
Last year was the second worst year on record for journalistic freedom, with 211 journalists imprisoned for their work, according to a report by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). Turkey, Iran and China had the highest recorded number of imprisoned journalists. The totals of the three countries combined account for more than half of all reporters imprisoned worldwide in 2013.
The organization Reporters Without Borders also showed a significant increase in the percentage of journalists kidnapped, with additional increases in physical threats, attacks, and forced exiles. Government targeting of journalists and bloggers continues into 2014, threatening the reporting of oppression and corruption throughout the world.
Turkey has applied broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to imprison dozens of journalists. For the second consecutive year, the CPJ ranked the country as the world’s leading jailer of journalists. News coverage of last summer’s anti-government protests, known as the Gezi Park protests, drew harsh criticism from Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who claimed the international community, specifically CNN, the BBC, and Reuters presented biased coverage sympathetic to the opposition.
In addition to holding the most recent record for imprisonments, the Turkish government is active in banning material from the Internet. On February 18, President Abdullah Gul approved a new law that allows Turkish authorities to block websites without a court order while simultaneously forcing Internet providers to keep user’s data for two years and make it available to authorities on demand.
Last month, prominent journalist Mahir Zeynalov left Turkey for his native country Azerbaijan after reports of a government decision to deport him. Zeynalov was charged with posting tweets against high-level state officials, including Prime Minister Erdogan, and is currently banned from re-entering the country.
A representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that Zeynalov’s deportation “is a further setback for the dire state of media freedom in Turkey. Freedom of expression does not stop at statements deemed proper by those in power, and limiting this right will further tighten the control of media”.
Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to increase press freedom, limited progress has been made since he took office last August. The CPJ reported 35 imprisonments in the country in 2013.
Within the past year, over 10 journalists and bloggers have been arrested and at least three newspapers have been forced to close under pressure from authorities.
Iran has a historically difficult relationship with foreign media, and strictly monitors the entry and activity of foreign journalists within the country. If a reporter makes claims that the government rejects, they have regularly had their press credentials revoked. This was most notable in 2011, when the government revoked the press credentials of 11 foreign correspondents covering anti-government protests.
On January 26, 774 journalists in Iran signed an open letter to President Rouhani, appealing for the reopening of the Association of Iranian Journalists. The Association has been closed since August 2009, and would be crucial in protecting the interests of the press.
Journalists and brothers Khosro and Masoud Kordpour were sentenced to prison terms of six years and three and a half years on charges of “gathering and colluding against national security”, “insulting the supreme leader”, and “spreading propaganda against the system”. Khosro is facing the additional charges of “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”, both of which could result in the death penalty.
Amnesty International Iran researcher Drewery Dyke said, “The authorities have cited vaguely-worded offences but in reality Khosro and Masoud seem to have been jailed just for their work as journalists, a disgraceful but not especially rare state of affairs on Iran”.
China is placed third on CPJ’s list with 32 reporters, editors, and bloggers imprisoned in 2013. In recent weeks, the Chinese government has been repeatedly accused of cracking down on foreign reporters.
Chinese authorities were recently accused of media repression during the trial of high profile Chinese activist, Xu Zhiyong. Prosecutors claimed that Xu “gathered a crowd to disturb public order” after participating in a series of anti-corruption protests demanding officials must publicly announce their assets. According to a report by Freedom House, the State Council Information Office ordered websites to remove Xu’s open letter to the President, as well as his closing statement, “For Freedom, Justice, and Love,” which the trial judge did not allow to be fully read in court.
CNN reporter David McKenzie attempted to walk towards the courthouse during Xu’s hearing and was kicked, pushed, and punched by Chinese security. Before being forced into a van and driven away from the site, McKenzie repeatedly stated that he was legally allowed to film in public areas.
On February 9, two Taiwanese journalists from Apple Daily and Radio Free Asia, both known for their critical coverage of the Chinese government, were denied visas to accompany Taiwanese officials for an important bilateral meeting.
According to CPJ, China’s influence over freedom of press is so strong that it has additionally affected journalism in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong has reportedly taken a step back from reporting on Chinese issues as critically as it once did, with many reporters censoring their work to avoid threats from Beijing.
Egypt has recently gained international attention for charging 20 journalists, including 8 working for Al Jazeera news network, on accounts linked to terrorism and spreading false news that endangers national security. The recent arrests have sparked an international campaign to free those detained, with thousands of journalists joining the #freeajstaff viral Twitter protest movement.
The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammed Morsi won the presidential poll last year, has continued to organize anti-government protests despite the Egyptian government declaring the group a terrorist organization in late December.
The Brotherhood’s illegal terrorist status, combined with Egypt’s restrictive protest laws, makes it particularly challenging for journalists to cover pro-Morsi demonstrations.
An Egyptian photographer was recently arrested at a police checkpoint after authorities viewed images of a protest captured on his camera. Another local photographer voiced the difficulty of journalism in Egypt, “It is not only that the violence has made it almost impossible to take close-up pictures at protests, but it has become difficult to even carry a camera in the street.”
Al Jazeera continues to reject the charges against its staff and is calling for their immediate release ahead of their scheduled March 24 trial.
More than 100 journalists have been attacked or detained since the nationwide Euromaidan protests began in Ukraine in late November. The Institute of Mass Information, a Kiev based press freedom group reporting on the attacks, stated that in the majority of cases journalists blamed Ukrainian riot police unit, Berkut, as the source of the violence.
On December 24, prominent opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovol was driven off the road and brutally attacked hours after posting pictures of what she claimed was the expensive out-of-town residence of Interior Minister Zakharchenko.
Less than a month later, another Euromaidan activist and journalist, Igor Lutsenko, was abducted and tortured by an unidentified assailants.
On January 31, Russian journalists Nikita Perfilyev and Anton Zakharov were abducted in Kiev after returning from covering a local protest. The journalists explained that after they were severely beaten, they were ordered to stop covering the opposition protests and leave Ukraine immediately.
While the Ukrainian government denied association with these violent acts, opposition activists claimed they were part of a strategy to silence dissent. In all cases Human Rights Watch documented, journalists said they were wearing a brightly colored vest marked “Press,” or a helmet with the same marking, to clearly distinguish them from protesters.
In 2012, Myanmar abolished a restrictive law that previously forced reporters to submit their work to state censors before publication. Despite the abolition, government censorship continues to permeate Burmese journalism. On January 7, journalists demonstrated in support of their imprisoned colleague, holding banners that read, “We don’t want threats on press freedom”.
On February 6, four reporters and the chief executive of a privately owned weekly newspaper, Unity Journal, were arrested for publishing a story on a chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. According to state media, the journalists were accused of violating the 1923 State Secrets Act by “entering a prohibited area” and “disclosing state secrets.”
Although government officials have dismissed the claims of chemical weapon production at the noted facility, police have confiscated all of the circulated newspapers containing the article.
Thailand-based magazine, The Irrawaddy, published a report stating that Myanmar President Thein Sein recently directed his ministers to prepare for the possibility of mass protests and violence this year. According to the magazine, Mr. Thein Sein told his ministers to be “united and strong” in the event of anti-government demonstrations, pointing to “lawless demands, violence and coercion” that have occurred in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh over elections.