The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual press freedom report Tuesday, once again bestowing the dubious honor of world’s worst jailer of journalists upon Communist China.
About half of China’s 47 known imprisoned journalists are Uyghurs, the oppressed Muslim minority herded into concentration camps by the Chinese government.
CPJ reached the same conclusion about 2020 as many other human rights advocates: governments around the world used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to crack down on criticism and dissent.
“A record number of journalists were imprisoned globally for their work in 2020 as authoritarian nations arrested many covering COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] or political instability. Amid the pandemic, governments delayed trials, restricted visitors, and disregarded the increased health risk in prison; at least two journalists died after contracting the disease in custody,” CPJ reported.
The report listed 274 journalists currently imprisoned for reasons related to their profession in 2020, besting the previous record tally of 272 in 2016. 2020 was the second year China kept the most journalists in prison, and the fifth consecutive year that “repressive governments have imprisoned at least 250 journalists.”
Turkey came in second place behind China, followed by Saudi Arabia. Belarus and Ethiopia were singled out as “countries where the number of jailed journalists rose significantly” in tandem with political unrest.
In China, the report said numerous journalists were arrested for “coverage that threatened the official narrative of Beijing’s response” to the coronavirus, including journalists who used social media to bypass Chinese censors and file reports from ground zero of the pandemic, the city of Wuhan. Chinese officials did everything possible to block or delete the work of these journalists, often without offering clear reasons for their censorship actions.
Egypt, Iran, and some of the other countries with large numbers of imprisoned journalists also showed a penchant for arresting reporters who questioned or undermined the government’s coronavirus response. Some journalists contracted the Wuhan virus while in custody, and at least two are known to have died from it.
Allegations of spreading disinformation continue to be a popular reason for imprisoning journalists. CPJ noted those accused of “fake news” are also frequently accused of belonging to terrorist or insurgent groups opposed to the local government.
CPJ’s Asia program coordinator Steven Butler told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that China commonly accuses jailed Uyghur journalists of being “two-faced,” which means “in name supporting the Communist Party but accused of undermining it in secret.”
China is also fond of the all-purpose allegation of “picking quarrels and starting trouble,” a charge that can be leveled against almost anyone who criticizes the government. In Hong Kong, the oppressive national security law, imposed in 2020, provides local officials with new tools for jailing everyone who criticizes them, prominently including the owner of Hong Kong’s biggest opposition newspaper, Jimmy Lai.
The SCMP noted that journalist persecution grew significantly worse in China as Beijing’s relations with other countries deteriorated in 2020, as Chinese officials frequently retaliated against foreign reporters when their home countries took action against Chinese media outlets for espionage and spreading propaganda. Chinese staffers working for foreign news organizations often found themselves caught up in these retaliatory actions.