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Nearly all journalists currently held hostage are located in Middle East

Sixty-four out of 65 reporters held around the world were taken hostage in the region, says Reporters Without Borders
Journalist Adham Dashrne was taken hostage by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria earlier this year (Facebook)

There are currently 65 reporters held as hostages around the world, all but one of them in the Middle East, according to the annual round-up by Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) of journalists detained, killed, held hostage and missing.

Of those held, 44 are in Syria, 11 in Iraq and nine in Yemen. The French journalist Olivier Dubois, held in Mali since April, is the only journalist outside the region.

In Syria, RSF says the biggest current threat is from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group that controls the northern Idlib area and is holding seven hostages. 

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HTS kidnapped four more journalists this year: Khaled Hseno, Adham Dashrne and the brothers Bashar and Mohamed Alshekh.

RSF's report, released on Thursday, highlights that there are currently 488 media professionals imprisoned around the world, the highest number since the press freedom organisation began counting more than 25 years ago.

By contrast, the number killed this year, 46, was the lowest since the NGO began issuing annual tallies, due to the relative stabilisation of conflicts in the Middle East.

According to the organisation, the falling number of deaths since a peak in 2016, reflects changing dynamics in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where a reduction in conflict means fewer journalists have been drawn to the region. 

Most of the 46 killings were assassinations: "65 percent were deliberately targeted and eliminated," the report said. 

RSF also said it had never seen so many women journalists detained, with the overall number of 60 representing a third more than in 2020. 

'Interminable trials'

Among the most striking cases in the Middle East highlighted by the report was this year’s joint longest prison sentence, 15 years, handed down to Ali Aboluhom in Saudi Arabia.

A journalist of Yemeni origin, Aboluhom was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October for tweets that, according to Saudi authorities, were used to spread “ideas of apostasy, atheism and blasphemy.”

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One of the two oldest detained journalists is 72-year-old Kayvan Samimi Behbahani, who is being held in Iran.

Editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Iran Farda and president of the Association for the Defence of Press Freedom, Behbahani was sentenced to three years in prison on a charge of “anti-government propaganda” in December 2020. He is one of 12 journalists currently detained in Iran.

RSF also underlined the case of Ali Anouzla, describing his situation as one of several "interminable trials" common in Morocco

Although not detained while on trial, Anouzla, a Lakome news website editor and reporter, has been waiting to learn his fate for eight years. 

Named an RSF “information hero” in 2014, he has been facing a possible 30-year jail sentence since 2013 on charges of “material support for terrorism,” “justifying terrorism” and “incitement to commit acts of terrorism.” 

'People's tribunal'

Of the 48 journalists who died in 2021, 30 were murdered or deliberately targeted because of their work, while 18 died in the field without being targeted as journalists.

A "people's tribunal" to achieve justice for murdered journalists opened in The Hague last month to defend media freedoms in an age of increasing authoritarianism and populism.

Set up by a coalition of press freedom organisations, the hearings lasting six months will focus on the unsolved cases of three journalists murdered in Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria.

While it has no legal powers to convict anyone, the tribunal aims to raise awareness, pressure governments and gather evidence through what it calls its form of "grassroots justice". 

The tribunal was organised by Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and RSF.