It has been a terrible year for journalists worldwide, with the number targeted for murder in reprisal for their reporting having nearly doubled in 2018 to 53. At least 251 journalists and probably more are behind bars for their work, as authoritarian regimes increasingly use imprisonment to silence dissent, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found.
Reporters Without Borders, the other major press organization, found even higher totals of journalists murdered, with 63 killed along with 13 “citizen journalists” – bloggers – and five media assistants. The two organizations use different criteria to determine whether reporters were killed in connection with their work.
With US President Donald Trump venting an absolute torrent of charges and abuse against reporters for uncovering his lies, the practice of calling critical reporting “fake news” has spread across the planet to Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Cameroon, Venezuela, Myanmar, Spain. Syria and many other countries to hide human rights abuses, corruption and out-and-out atrocities.
Trump has had a valuable ally in the Fox News Network, owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which has sought to discredit the reporting of virtually all of the major media, domestic and foreign, for reporting on allegations of White House misdeeds.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to put the crusading website Rappler out of business with trumped-up charges of tax evasion. Twelve journalists have been murdered during the first two years of Duterte’s administration. He famously said shortly after his 2016 election that “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch” when asked how he would address media killings in the country, one of the world’s worst for violence against reporters.
The pressure on journalists led Time Magazine to name “the guardians” the magazine’s Person of the Year, featuring those who have been targeted for their work, chief among them Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was said to have been murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October by Saudi agents, apparently because of his critical reporting on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Time Managing Editor Edward Felsenthal told CNN "the first move in the authoritarian playbook is the control of information, the suppression of people who try to get the facts out. And we saw that in a major way" in 2018. That led Time to spotlight the legions of journalists who have been targeted because of their work.
Amazingly, Fox News host Laura Ingraham scolded the magazine for choosing journalists who have been targeted, arrested or killed as their “Person of the Year,” calling the decision “transparently self-serving,” and saying there is “something transparently self-serving about journalists giving awards to other journalists.”
China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia imprisoned more journalists than in 2017 as despots intensified their repression of local journalists, according to the CPJ, and Turkey remained the world's worst jailer for the third year in a row, with at least 68 behind bars. Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in 2012 while freelancing for the Washingfton Post, remains arguably the longest-imprisoned.
Some 70 percent of journalists have been jailed on anti-state charges and 28 charged with "false news," CPJ said, an increase from nine in 2016. Politics was the most dangerous beat for journalists, followed by human rights. The number of female journalists behind bars increased, with 33 imprisoned globally, including four in Saudi Arabia who wrote about women's rights. An increase in the overall number of journalists jailed in China this year is the result in part of Beijing's persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority.
"The terrible global assault on journalists that has intensified in the past few years shows no sign of abating,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “It is unacceptable that 251 journalists are in jail around the world just for covering the news. The broader cost is being borne by all those who care about the flow of news and information. The tyrants who use imprisonment to impose censorship cannot be allowed to get away with it."
Afghanistan, where extremists have stepped up deliberate attacks on journalists, was the deadliest country, with 12 killed, the most of any year since the CPJ began keeping track and accounted for much of the increase in journalist murders, CPJ said. At least 53 journalists have died since Jan. 1, of which at least 34 were singled out for murder. The number of reporters who died in combat or crossfire, however, fell to 11, the lowest since 2011, and deaths on other dangerous assignments, such as covering protests that turn violent (eight this year).
The total is up from 47 killed in all of last year, of which 18 were pinpointed for murder. A total of 50 were killed in 2016. The recent uptick in killings follows two years of decline, but comes as the jailing of journalists hits a sustained high, “adding up to a profound global crisis of press freedom.”
With President Trump’s refusal to believe CIA findings that Khashoggi was murdered at the hands of the Saudi Crown Prince, “Essentially, Trump signaled that countries that do enough business with the United States are free to murder journalists without consequence.”
In Syria, at least nine journalists were killed in each 2017 and 2018, compared with a high of 31 in 2012. In Yemen, three journalists were killed in 2018, and in Iraq, CPJ has not confirmed that any journalists were killed because of their work for the first time since 2012. Elsewhere in the Middle East, two Palestinian journalists were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers while covering protests in the Gaza strip. CPJ is investigating the killing of another 23 journalists in 2018, but so far has not been able to confirm that the motive was journalism in those cases.
The prison census accounts only for journalists in government custody and does not include those who have disappeared or are held captive by non-state actors. Cases including journalists held by Houthi rebels in Yemen and a Ukrainian journalist held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are classified as "missing" or "abducted."
In the US, no journalists were in jail for their work on December 1, although in the past 18 months CPJ has documented or assisted with the cases of at least seven foreign journalists who were held in prolonged detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after fleeing threats in their home countries.