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December 16, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:52am

Lowest death toll for journalists since 2003 but more in prison than any time since 1995, says RSF

By Bron Maher

More journalists are in prison than at any time since 1995, according to Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres).

The press freedom campaign group believes that there were 488 media workers in prison this month — 20% more than December last year.

Three countries were said to be particularly to blame for the “exceptional surge” – Myanmar, Belarus and China.

In contrast, 46 journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2021,  RSF’s lowest figure since 2003, according to its annual report of journalists detained, killed, held hostage and missing.

It continues a downwards trend: the 2019 report logged 49 journalist deaths that year, and 2020’s found 50. In contrast, in 2018 80 journalists lost their lives in connection with their work.

RSF attributes the drop in mortality to “a decline in the intensity of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen” and to campaigns by press freedom organisations to create protections for journalists.

But the non-profit said that “an average of nearly one journalist a week is still being killed in connection with their work”.

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Some 65% of the journalists killed in 2021 were deliberately targeted – down from a record high of 85% last year, but higher than the five year average.

The 2021 report also registered more women journalists in prison than ever before. According to RSF, 60 women journalists are currently being detained, a third more than last year. The figure for men, in contrast, rose only 19%. Belarus, in particular, holds the distinction of imprisoning more female journalists (17) than men (15).

RSF said: “This exceptional surge in arbitrary detention is due, above all, to three countries – Myanmar, where the military retook power in a coup on 1 February 2021, Belarus, which has seen a major crackdown since Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election 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 secretary-general Christophe Deloire said: “The extremely high number of journalists in arbitrary detention is the work of three dictatorial regimes.

“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. 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.” 

China remains the biggest jailer of journalists, having kept the title now for five years in a row. Mexico is the deadliest country to be a journalist for the third year in a row and Afghanistan the second, having seen seven and six deaths respectively.

Some 65 journalists are being held hostage. The Islamic State is the most prolific captor, responsible for two-fifths of the figure.  The number includes some journalists likely to have been killed in captivity, but who are counted as hostages until their deaths can be confirmed.

Among the particular imprisonments highlighted in the report are those of Zhang Zhan, Jimmy Lai (pictured), Julian Assange, and Raman Pratasevich.

Pratasevich, an opposition journalist in Belarus, was arrested after a RyanAir flight he was on was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet and forced to land in the country.

The report describes Zhang Zhan as “the journalist who is in greatest danger of dying in prison”. Having started a hunger strike to protest her four-year prison sentence for allegedly “posting large quantities of false information” about the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, RSF reports that she now weighs only 40 kilograms.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is founder of the city’s Apple Daily tabloid, which was shuttered in June after its assets were frozen under a new national security law. He was sentenced to 13 months in prison on Monday “for participating in a vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre”, according to the BBC. RSF say that 74-year-old Lai is the oldest detained journalist in the world.

WikiLeaks founder Assange faces “the heaviest sentence faced by any journalist in 2021” according to the report, with the prospect of 175 years in prison ahead should he be successfully extradited from Britain to the US. The US last week had a UK judge’s decision against his extradition overturned but he now plans to appeal.

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