The year 2022 has another shameful record to its credit. Early this month, the organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF/ Reporters Sans Frontiers) released a tally that showed that the number of journalists being held behind bars around the world had hit a new high.
In 2021, the number of media professionals in jails stood at 488. As the current year draws to a close, the number has risen to 533. RSF has been keeping records since 1995. The Paris-based non-profit organization was formed, in 1985, to “act for the freedom, pluralism, and independence of journalism and defend those who embody these ideals.”
Unsurprisingly, a few countries make up for the bulk of the imprisonments. Here too, China holds the top spot with 110 journalists behind bars. The Beijing government’s crackdown on media and maltreatment of industry members, especially those working in or reporting on Hong Kong, is well documented.
The other countries at the top of the list are Myanmar (62), Iran (47), Vietnam (39), and Belarus (31).
Though the right-wing conservatives govern Iran, the country rose to the third spot very recently. Public protests that erupted after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for a minor dress code violation had spread like wildfire throughout Iran. As part of the efforts to crush the unrest, the Islamic regime has imprisoned 34 journalists since September.
Myanmar, under the military junta, and Belarus, governed by President Lukashenko, hardly want the press to do their job. Free media and in-depth reporting are threats that authoritarian regimes can ill afford.
A great cause for concern is that about two-thirds of the jailed journalists have not had a fair trial. Only a third has been convicted of breaking the law. According to the RSF, some have been awaiting trial behind bars for more than two decades.
Besides imprisonment, the RSF reports that 57 journalists were killed while on duty. Mexico, Haiti, and Brazil made up almost half that number. The Ukraine War alone has claimed the lives of eight presspersons. Disturbingly, the organization stated that about eighty percent of press personnel murdered this year were “deliberately targeted in connection with their work or the stories they were covering.”
Further, the 2022 report details that 65 journalists are being held hostage, and another 49 are missing. As authoritarian governments increase surveillance and censorship, the job of news reporters becomes more perilous. Those covering corruption, drug cartels, and pro-democracy or anti-government movements are targeted primarily.
As attacks on journalists and media persons rise, in-depth and fair reporting suffers. Gagging the press and suppressing information is a key tactic employed by undemocratic governments and power-hungry autocrats. Propaganda and controlled narratives fill the vacuum created by a silenced media.
Reporting on matters of public interest, holding those in public offices accountable, and uncovering new information are the essential functions of journalism. And these are putting the journalists at increasingly higher risks.
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