More journalists are behind bars for their work globally than ever before, with repressive regimes from Asia to Europe leading an unprecedented crackdown on press freedoms, the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned in a new report.
A staggering 488 journalists and media workers, including 60 women, are currently in prison – the highest number since the RSF’s first annual report in 1995. The group found that an additional 65 journalists are being held hostage.
RSF said the “exceptional surge” in arbitrary detentions was the work of dictatorial regimes in three countries: Myanmar, where the military overthrew the government in a coup in February, Belarus, which has seen a stifling of opposition voices since the disputed re-election of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko in August, and China, which has been tightening its grip on Hong Kong since promulgating a national security law there in 2020.
“It is a reflection of the reinforcement of dictatorial power worldwide, an accumulation of crises, and the lack of any scruples on the part of these regimes,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“It may also be the result of new geopolitical power relationships in which authoritarian regimes are not being subjected to enough pressure to curb their crackdowns,” Deloire added.
Though an assault on free speech has left more journalists jailed, 2021 saw a drop in the number of reporters killed in connection with their work to the lowest level in two decades: 46. RSF said that the decline was due to the cooling of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Mexico and Afghanistan, where seven and six journalists were killed respectively, were two of the deadliest countries for reporters this year, according to the report.
The RSF report comes a week after a prison census by nonprofit group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that the number of reporters jailed for their work in 2021 had hit a new global record: 293. That tally is up from 280 journalists in 2020 and is the highest number CPJ has ever reported since it started keeping track of the data in 1992.
For the sixth straight year, the number of journalists imprisoned exceeded 250, according to CPJ.
“This is a stark reminder of a continuing trend of creeping authoritarianism around the world,” CPJ’s Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney told CNN Business. “Governments are becoming more and more intolerant of independent reporting, criticism, journalists unearthing dirty little secrets like corruption, and are using a variety of means to stop that and one of them is imprisonment.”
With 50 journalists behind bars, China topped the list for the third consecutive year. Among them is Haze Fan, a Chinese national working in Bloomberg’s Beijing bureau who was detained last December. Bloomberg reported this week that there have been no updates to her case a year later.
CPJ said this year’s census includes Hong Kong for the first time. That is where Jimmy Lai, founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was sentenced to 14 months in prison earlier this year. China’s National Security Law, implemented in 2020 after months of anti-government protests, broadened Beijing’s power over the special administrative region.
“The vibrant Hong Kong media that we once knew is slowly being throttled,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney told CNN Business that the statistics in CPJ’s annual census are “conservative.” The census includes only journalists incarcerated as of December 1, which means CPJ did not count American journalist Danny Fenster who was released from prison in Myanmar in November.
“We spend a lot of time researching the cases and include only those journalists who we are absolutely certain are in jail because of their work as journalists. If there’s any doubt, we put them in an unconfirmed category,” Mahoney said. “Bottom line is the world is becoming a more difficult place for independent journalists. Countries are criminalizing the very act of reporting.”
CPJ’s report also found at least 24 journalists were killed for their work, as of December 1, up from 22 last year. That statistic includes 19 journalists who were murdered in retaliation. India ranked as the country with the highest number of journalists murdered in retaliation, with four deaths confirmed in 2021.
This story has been updated with the Reporters Without Borders report.
CNN’s Jake Kwon in Seoul contributed to this report.