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Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt among worst jailers of journalists, report says

Authorities increasingly using the charge of 'false news' to crack down on freedom of expression, Committee to Protect Journalists says
People hold a banner and pictures of jailed people as they take part in a protest against the Turkish government for arresting journalists, academicians and lawyers in Istanbul. (AFP)

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt remain among the highest jailers of journalists in the world, according to a report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Wednesday.

At least 250 journalists have been jailed this year for their work, the media watchdog said, adding that the numbers are near record highs. The majority were imprisoned on "anti-state charges" this year, CPJ said.

For the first time in four years, Turkey has been superseded by China as the world’s worst jailer of media professionals. Turkey imprisoned 47 journalists in 2019, down from 68 last year. 

However, the report clarifies that this is not an indication that the situation has improved for journalists in Turkey.

On the contrary, CPJ said, the Turkish government has been successful in eradicating critical media voices.

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“[The decreased number] reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism by closing down more than 100 news outlets and lodging terror-related charges against many of their staff,” it said.

Several journalists in Turkey that have not been imprisoned are currently facing trial or appeal and could still be jailed, while others have been sentenced in absentia and could face prison time if they returned to the country.

China, under President Xi Jinping's tight rule, has arrested 48 journalists so far this year, particularly in Xinjang province where a large Muslim minority has faced an abuse of rights.

The Middle East made it high on the list, in particular Saudi Arabia, which is now at par with Egypt as the third-worst jailer globally.

“Authoritarianism, instability, and protests in the Middle East led to a rise in the number of journalists locked up in the region,” CPJ said.

The two countries each arrested 26 journalists in 2019; in Saudi Arabia 18 of them have not been publicly charged.

Those that have been tried in the kingdom have been sentenced in a secretive manner with reports of torture.

The CPJ says the arrests and details of abuse in Saudi Arabia, including "beating, burning and starving prisoners", are concerning.

“The arrests and documented abuse show how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence services and an independent inquiry by a UN rapporteur say is responsible for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, continues his brutal crackdown on dissent,” the watchdog said.

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The report also found that the number of journalists charged with "false news" has steadily increased since 2012.

Thirty journalists were put in jail in 2019 for on "false news" charges, compared with 28 last year and just one in 2012.

Earlier this year, Russia and Singapore both introduced controversial anti-fake news laws.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government uses the charge of "false news" most prolifically, the report found.

The other states that made it to the top third of the list for jailing journalists are Eritrea (16), Vietnam (12) and Iran (11). 

About eight percent of those imprisoned globally are women, down from 13 percent last year, the report said. Politics, human rights and corruption were the subjects most likely to land journalists in jail, it said.

The report is a snapshot of the journalists imprisoned on 1 December each year, the committee said. It does not include those who have been released earlier or journalists taken by non-state entities such as militant groups.