After Relentless Defense of Khashoggi, Turkey Named World’s Worst Jailer of Journalists

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the Justice and Development (AK) Party's provincial heads meeting in Ankara, on November 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published its annual report on imprisoned journalists on Thursday, and perennial champion Turkey once again leads the league although competition for the title of world’s worst persecutor of the press was distressingly vigorous.

CPJ noted the past three years featured the highest number of imprisoned journalists since the organization began keeping score. “Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row,” the report observed.

The CPJ report made an effort to conflate the incarceration and murder of journalists around the world with U.S. President Donald Trump’s habit of criticizing the American media in blunt terms:

The majority of those imprisoned globally – 70 percent – are facing anti-state charges such as belonging to or aiding groups deemed by authorities as terrorist organizations. The number imprisoned on charges of false news rose to 28 globally, compared with nine just two years ago. Egypt jailed the most journalists on false news charges with 19, followed by Cameroon with four, Rwanda with three, and one each in China and Morocco. The increase comes amid heightened global rhetoric about “fake news,” of which U.S. President Donald Trump is the leading voice.

Besides soiling the important work of monitoring press freedom by taking a shot at Trump — who has imprisoned and killed no journalists and harassed fewer with the power of the state than his predecessor Barack Obama — this comment about “fake news” misses the point of what truly oppressive regimes are doing and how long they have been doing it.

Instead of picturing a slippery slope that begins with Trump tossing CNN’s Jim Acosta out of the White House briefing room and ends with Saudi Arabia murdering Jamal Khashoggi, serious students of media suppression might pause to consider that Trump manages to be heatedly critical of adversarial media without actually oppressing them at all. (CPJ took a moment to note that nine journalists were arrested across the United States for various reasons in 2018, but none of them were currently in jail as of December 1.)

Jamal Khashoggi was of course prominently mentioned in the CPJ report, but to its credit, the organization correctly identified him as a “columnist” and stressed his murder in Istanbul was not the only reason to be critical of press freedom in Saudi Arabia. The report also perceptively noted the most outspoken critic of the Saudis after Khashoggi’s death was none other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who needs coaching from no one in how to stomp on freedom of the press:

Saudi Arabia–under intense scrutiny for the murder of exiled, critical Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate in October–stepped up its repression of journalists at home, with at least 16 journalists behind bars on December 1. The prisoners include four female journalists who wrote about women’s rights in the kingdom, including the ban on women driving that was lifted in June.

Even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the fiercest critic of Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi, his government continued to jail more journalists than any other on the planet. CPJ found at least 68 journalists jailed for their work in Turkey, which is slightly lower than previous years. In the course of the year, dozens more have been jailed or released, as prosecutors continue to seek arrest warrants and apply new charges, and courts ordered some journalists released pending trial and acquitted others. For the third consecutive year, every journalist imprisoned in Turkey is facing anti-state charges.

Erdoğan began the crackdown before the 2016 failed coup attempt, but afterward intensified it, shutting down more than 100 news outlets by decree. Those on the periphery of the journalistic profession are also vulnerable. CPJ’s list of jailed journalists does not include 13 staff from Gün Printing House, including its owner, a security guard, and several machine operators, who were jailed. Their “crime” is evidently printing Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, a pro-Kurdish daily paper that the government took over and eventually shut down. Several journalists affiliated with the paper, who are included in the prison census, are detained on accusations of supporting the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Dozens more in Turkey are accused of affiliation with PKK or with an alleged terror group run by exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, which the government blames for the attempted coup.

Unlike Time magazine in its highly politicized 2018 Person of the Year salute to the “guardians of truth,” CPJ had plenty to say about China and its brutal treatment of journalists who criticize the state:

The higher number of prisoners in China–with 47 behind bars–reflects the latest wave of persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region. At least 10 journalists in China were detained without charge, all of them in Xinjiang, where the United Nations has accused Beijing of mass surveillance and detention of up to a million people without trial.

In the highest-profile example, Lu Guang, a freelance photographer and U.S. resident whose work on environmental and social issues in China has won awards from the World Press Photo Foundation and National Geographic, disappeared in Xinjiang in early November. Authorities later confirmed his arrest to his family, but have not disclosed his location or reason for detaining him.

More broadly, President Xi Jinping has steadily increased his grip on power since taking office in 2013; this year, authorities stepped up regulation of technology that can bypass the country’s infamous firewall, issued lists “of “approved” news outlets, and disbarred lawyers who represent jailed journalists, CPJ has found. While President Trump has continually pressed Beijing over its trade and technology practices, human rights–such as press freedom and the crackdown in Xinjiang–have not figured into the headlines.

The report also spotlighted Egypt’s habit of coming up with fanciful reasons to keep journalists critical of the government behind bars and efforts in sub-Saharan African countries like Eritrea and Cameroon to suppress independent media.

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