China, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the world’s worst jailers of journalists in 2019, according to the latest census report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In its annual survey published on Wednesday, the New York-based watchdog found the number of journalists imprisoned globally for their work in 2019 remained near record highs, with 250 documented cases. The highest number of journalists imprisoned in any year since 1992, when CPJ began keeping track, is 273 in 2016.
The report found that the number of journalists imprisoned on “false news” charges rose to 30, compared to 28 last year, with Egypt applying the charge more than any other country. The “false news” allegation has climbed steeply since 2012, when CPJ found only one journalist worldwide facing the charge.
At least 26 journalists are imprisoned in Egypt, according to the census, making it the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists, alongside Saudi Arabia.
The report highlighted the “violent abuse” of Egyptian journalist Esraa Abdelfattah during her arrest in Cairo on October 12, when she was dragged from her car by security forces and beaten. Abdelfattah was beaten again in custody and shackled for hours. She is still in detention and currently on hunger strike to protest her treatment.
Her friend Mohamed Salah, also a journalist, was with Abdelfattah during her arrest, and was also beaten at the time, before being released that evening. Six weeks later, on November 26, Salah was arrested, along with journalists Solafa Magdy and Hossam al-Sayyad, from a coffee shop in Cairo. All three remain in prison. Their arrests came two days after security officers raided Mada Masr’s offices and detained three journalists, releasing them the same day along with Mada Masr editor Shady Zalat, who was arrested a day earlier from his home.
CPJ also cites the case of photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan. Abou Zeid was released from prison in March 2019 after spending over five years behind bars, but since then he has had to spend 12 hours in a police station every night as part of an additional five-year probation, leading CPJ to maintain his listing as imprisoned.
China was named the world’s worst jailer of journalists with at least 48 behind bars, according to the census. “The number has steadily increased as President Xi Jinping consolidated political control of the country and instituted ever tighter controls on the media,” the report said. It also highlighted the crackdown in Xinjiang province, where a million members of a Muslim ethnic group have been sent to internment camps and dozens of journalists have been arrested.
The 2019 census marked the first time in four years that Turkey was not listed as the world’s worst jailer with 47 journalists behind bars, down from 68 last year. “But the reduced number of prisoners does not signal an improved situation for the Turkish media,” the report said, attributing the drop to successful efforts by Turkish authorities to crack down on independent reporting by closing down more than 100 news outlets.
“Dozens of journalists not currently jailed in Turkey are still facing trial or appeal and could yet be sentenced to prison, while others have been sentenced in absentia and face arrest if they return to the country,” the report said.
Saudi Arabia rose to become the third-worst jailer of journalists in 2019, on par with Egypt, according to the census. “Saudi authorities barely make any pretense of due process; no charges have been disclosed in 18 of the cases,” the report said.
After China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the worst jailers are Eritrea, Vietnam, and Iran, the report found.
Covering politics was the issue most likely to land journalists in jail around the world, followed by human rights and corruption, according to the report. More than half of those imprisoned were reporters publishing online.
CPJ noted that its list is a snapshot of those incarcerated on December 1, 2019. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year. The census also only accounts for journalists in government custody and does not include those who have disappeared or are held captive by non-state actors, such as those held by Houthi rebels in Yemen.