No Safety in Internet Journalism

As the year draws to an end, journalists are continuing to go to jail across the world for attempting to report what governments don’t want them to report. And, despite the perception that there is relative safety in Internet journalism, bloggers are going to jail faster than members of the mainstream press, according to a survey by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

For the tenth straight year, China has put more reporters in prison than any other country, although Cuba, Burma, Eritrea and Uzbekistan are not far behind. The prison census has fallen slightly, by two reporters, according to the survey. Each of the five countries has consistently placed among the world’s worst in detaining journalists

At least 56 online journalists are jailed worldwide, according to CPJ’s census, a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time. Some 45 percent of the 125 journalists imprisoned worldwide as of December 1 are bloggers, web-based reporters or online editors, the CPJ found, representing the largest professional category in CPJ’s prison census. The arrests reflect the rising influence of online reporting and commentary, the CPJ said, but they probably also reflect the relative lack of legal protection that is afforded to journalists from their employment by larger media organizations.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Nov. 26 (see: Journalist shot and killed in Assam), in line with the slightly falling numbers of imprisoned journalists, the number of murdered journalists has fallen as well, with at least 36 murdered and another 17 missing or unconfirmed as to whether they died on the job. Ironically, it is putative democracies include Colombia, India, Russia and the Philippines that are among the worst countries in the world at prosecuting journalists’ killers, according to a list compiled in April by CPJ.

Across Asia, two reporters each were killed in Thailand, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, four in Pakistan and at least three in India, according to the Committee to protect Journalists. The latest to die was Indian journalist Jagjit Saikia, a district correspondent for the daily newspaper Amar Asom, who was shot dead in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on November 23.

While that is a bloody toll, it is down considerably from 2007, when at least 65 journalists died on the job, the highest death toll since 1994, when 66 died amid conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia and Rwanda, according to CPJ. Iraq in 2007 led the world for the fifth straight year, with 32 killed. Somalia was second with seven. The press advocacy organization was investigating another 23 deaths in to attempt to determine if they were related to their jobs in journalism. As the Iraq war has wound down, the total of journalists murdered there in 2008 has fallen to a still high 10, with two more murdered but it is unclear if their deaths were related to their jobs.

Among those imprisoned, print reporters, editors and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 53 cases in 2008. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

“Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

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As an indication of the lack of protection that big organizations afford for Internet journalists, 45 of those in CPJ’s prison census are freelancers, the numbers of whom have risen more than 40 percent in the lasttwo years. Most them work online. They are not employees of media companies and often do not have the legal resources or political connections that might help them gain their freedom.

“The image of the solitary blogger working at home in pajamas may be appealing, but when the knock comes on the door they are alone and vulnerable,” said CPJ’s Simon in the press release. “All of us must stand up for their rights—from Internet companies to journalists and press freedom groups. The future of journalism is online and we are now in a battle with the enemies of press freedom who are using imprisonment to define the limits of public discourse.”

The most visible name in Southeast Asia is Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the editor of the online publication Malaysia Today, who was jailed in September on charges of sedition, criminal libel and violation of the country’s notorious Internal Security Act, which allows for what amounts to indefinite detention without habeas corpus or trial. He has since been freed, but is due to stand trial on the sedition charges after having written several articles purporting to tie Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his wife to the October, 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator who, according to some reports, had been Najib’s lover.

Antistate allegations such as subversion, divulging state secrets, and acting against national interests are the most common charge used to imprison journalists worldwide, CPJ found. Some 59 percent of journalists in the census are jailed under these charges, many of them by the Chinese and Cuban governments.

Some 13 percent of jailed journalists face no formal charge at all, according to the CPJ report. The tactic is used by countries as diverse as Eritrea, Israel, Iran, the United States, and Uzbekistan, where journalists are being held in open-ended detentions without due process. At least 16 journalists worldwide are being held in secret locations. Among them is Gambian journalist “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, whose whereabouts, legal status, and health have been kept secret since his arrest in July 2006.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that despite the strong domestic laws that protect journalists in the US, the country has been holding photographer Ibrahim Jassam without charge in Iraq and has made CPJ’s list of countries jailing journalists for the fifth consecutive year. During this period, US military authorities have jailed dozens of journalists in Iraq—some for days, others for months at a time—without charge or due process. No charges have ever been substantiated in these cases, the CPj says.

From the US Senate to the West African human rights court, the CPJ said, international observers have called on authorities to free Manneh, who was jailed for trying to publish a critical report about Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.

Nowhere is the ascendancy of Internet journalism more evident than in China, according to the report, where 24 of 28 jailed journalists worked online. China’s prison list includes Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist and blogger, who is serving a prison term of three and a half years for online commentaries and media interviews in which he criticized the Communist Party. He was convicted of “incitement to subvert state power,” a charge commonly used by authorities in China to jail critical writers. At least 22 journalists are jailed in China on this and other vague antistate charges.

Cuba, the world’s second worst jailer, released two imprisoned journalists during the year after negotiations with Spain, according to the report. Madrid, which resumed some cooperative programs with Cuba in February, has sought the release of imprisoned writers and dissidents in talks with Havana. But Cuba continued to hold 21 writers and editors in prison as of December 1, all but one of them swept up in Fidel Castro’s massive 2003 crackdown on the independent press. In November, CPJ honored Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, who at 65 is the oldest of those jailed in Cuba, with an International Press Freedom Award.

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CPJ called Burma the third worst jailer, holding 14 journalists. Five were arrested while trying to spread news and images from areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis. The blogger and comedian Maung Thura, who uses the professional name Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years in prison during closed proceedings in November. Authorities accused Maung Thura of illegally disseminating video footage of relief efforts in hard-hit areas, communicating with exiled dissidents, and causing public alarm in comments to foreign media.

Eritrea, with 13 journalists in prison, is the fourth worst jailer, according to the report. Eritrean authorities have refused to disclose the whereabouts, legal status, or health of any of the journalists they have imprisoned. Unconfirmed online reports have said that three of the jailed journalists may have died in custody, but the government has refused to even say whether the detainees are alive or dead.

Uzbekistan, with six journalists detained, is the fifth worst jailer. Those in custody include Dzhamshid Karimov, nephew of the country’s president. A reporter for independent news Web sites, Karimov has been forcibly held in a psychiatric hospital since 2006.

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

  • In about 11 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 10 percent of cases. Criminal defamation charges are filed in about 7 percent of cases, while charges of ethnic or religious insult are lodged in another 4 percent. Two journalists are jailed for filing what authorities consider to be “false” news. (More than one type of charge may apply in individual cases.)

  • Print and Internet journalists make up the bulk of the census. Television journalists compose the next largest professional category, accounting for 6 percent of cases. Radio journalists account for 4 percent, and documentary filmmakers 3 percent.

  • The 2008 tally reflects the second consecutive decline in the total number of jailed journalists. That said, the 2008 figure is roughly consistent with census results in each year since 2000. CPJ research shows that imprisonments rose significantly in 2001, after governments imposed sweeping national security laws in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Imprisonments stood at 81 in 2000 but have since averaged 128 in CPJ's annual surveys.

  • CPJ does not apply a rigid definition of online journalism, but it carefully evaluates the work of bloggers and online writers to determine whether the content is journalistic in nature. In general, CPJ looks to see whether the content is reportorial or fact-based commentary. In a repressive society where the traditional media is restricted, CPJ takes an inclusive view of work produced online.

The organization believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. CPJ has sent letters expressing its serious concerns to each country that has imprisoned a journalist.

CPJ's list is a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2008. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at www.cpj.org. 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."