By Jessica Corbett
Reporters Without Borders announced Thursday that this year has featured a 20% surge in the number of journalists arbitrarily detained worldwide, documenting at least 488 cases, the highest figure since the global press freedom group began its annual roundup in 1995.
There are also at least 65 journalists being held hostage around the world, according to the group, also known by its French name, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).
“The extremely high number of journalists in arbitrary detention is the work of three dictatorial regimes,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “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.”
Deloire added that “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.”
RSF took aim at the leaders of the three regimes responsible for the increase:
This exceptional surge in arbitrary detention is due, above all, to three countries—Myanmar, where the military retook power in a coup… Belarus, which has seen a major crackdown since Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed reelection in August 2020, and Xi Jinping’s China, which is tightening its grip on Hong Kong, the special administrative region once seen as a regional model of respect for press freedom.
RSF has also never previously registered so many female journalists in prison, with a total of 60 currently detained in connection with their work—a third (33%) more than at this time last year. China, the world’s biggest jailer of journalists for the fifth year running, is also the biggest jailer of female journalists, with 19 currently detained. They include Zhang Zhan, a 2021 RSF Press Freedom laureate, who is now critically ill.
Overall, China is detaining 127 reporters. Belarus is holding 32—15 male and 17 female—while Myanmar is holding 53, 44 male and nine female. Rounding out the top five for most detained media workers are Vietnam at 43 and Saudi Arabia at 31.
By contrast, the annual death toll has dropped dramatically to 46, a 20-year low. In fact, RSF noted, “you have to go back to 2003 to find another year with fewer than 50 journalists killed.”
“This year’s fall is mostly due to a decline in the intensity of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and to campaigning by press freedom organizations, including RSF, for the implementation of international and national mechanisms aimed at protecting journalists,” the group explained.
RSF—one of the groups that launched a people’s tribunal for murdered journalists at The Hague last month—found that at least 65% of those killed were “deliberately targeted and eliminated.”
🔴 2021 #RSFRoundUp : Murders, imprisonment, hostage-taking and enforced disappearances… an increasingly relentless persecution of journalists.
488 journalists are in prison (20% more than a year ago)
One journalist was killed every week in 2021.https://t.co/YIrIUr2fOp pic.twitter.com/3wsbeUsVcM
— RSF (@RSF_inter) December 16, 2021
The deadliest countries for reporters this year were Mexico and Afghanistan, where seven and six journalists were killed, respectively. India and Yemen tied for the third spot, with four reporters killed in each country through December 1 this year.
After the cutoff date for the report, freelance photographer Soe Naing died this month in Myanmar as a result of force used during interrogation. Three other journalists were arrested in the country in recent days—Zaw Tun, Aung San Lin, and Min Theik Tun.
“With Soe Naing’s death, a new tragic threshold has been crossed this morning in the terror that Myanmar’s military are using against journalists,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement earlier this week.
“His death must serve as an alarm signal and push the international community to impose new targeted sanctions on the military junta that has been running the country since February, starting with its chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing,” Bastard added. “The world can no longer look on without doing something.”
This will keep happening if people in power believe they can get away with it.
And right now, their calculations appear to be true.
Reporter dies under interrogation in Myanmar’s escalating terror https://t.co/l6JqLwhUrC
— Damakant (@damakant) December 15, 2021
According to RSF, some of this year’s “most striking” cases include:
This year’s longest prison sentence, 15 years, was handed down to both Ali Aboluhom in Saudi Arabia and Pham Chi Dung in Vietnam. The longest and most Kafkaesque trials are being inflicted on Amadou Vamoulké in Cameroon and Ali Anouzla in Morocco. The oldest detained journalists are Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong and Kayvan Samimi Behbahani in Iran, who are 74 and 73 years old. The French journalist Olivier Dubois was the only foreign journalist to be abducted this year.
The group’s roundup follows a similar tally released last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which found that at least 293 reporters were incarcerated across the globe as of the beginning of the month. Its top five nations were China, Myanmar, Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus.
“This is the sixth year in a row that CPJ has documented record numbers of journalists imprisoned around the world,” said the group’s executive director, Joel Simon. “The number reflects two inextricable challenges—governments are determined to control and manage information, and they are increasingly brazen in their efforts to do so.”