A Pandemic of Arrested and Imprisoned Journalists

January 22, 2021

In 2020 covid has provided governments with an excuse to crack down on journalists countering pandemic narrative. Many of them have been arrested and imprisoned worldwide for “unfair and imprecise coverage” of the pandemic.

According to the annual report published by “Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) – Reporters Without Borders” (an international non-profit and non-governmental organization working for journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism all over the world) a total of 387 journalists worldwide are currently detained in connection with their work, 54 are held hostage and four are missing.

RSF new report entitled, “Round Up 2020 – Journalists detained, held hostage and missing” says that the total held at the end of 2020 is almost the same as last year, despite a big increase in press freedom violations and arrests linked to the pandemic. In 2020 at least 14 journalists have been arrested worldwide for “unfair and imprecise coverage” of the pandemic or on a charge of “violating lockdown regulations,” and are still being held.

RSF round-up gives the tallies of journalists who were detained, held hostage or missing as of December 1, 2020 (period January 1, 2020 to December 1, 2020). It does not take account of journalists who have been arrested or released since that date.

“The number of journalists in prison”, report explaines, “at the end of 2020 is 387: just two less than at the end of 2019. This means that the number of journalists held worldwide is still at a historically high level. More than half (61%) are held in just five countries. For the second year running, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Syria are the world’s five biggest jailers of journalists.”

“The number of arrests quadrupled from March to May 2020. State of exception laws and emergency measures adopted in much of the world to tackle the covid-19 pandemic visibly contributed to a “news and information lockdown” and resulted in journalists being arrested and sometimes jailed. In India, for example, judicial investigations were opened against no fewer than 48 journalists, and 15 of them were arrested and held for between one and four weeks before being released on bail.”

“Although not exhaustive, the data gathered by RSF’s staff for “Tracker 19” (a new RSF tool specifically created for the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020) shows a significant surge in press freedom violations during the northern hemisphere’s 2020 spring, as covid-19 began to spread around the world. Of more than 300 incidents directly linked to journalistic coverage of the pandemic from 1 February to 30 November 2020 (involving nearly 450 journalists), arbitrary arrests alone constituted 35% of the logged abuses (while physical or psychological violence constituted 30%).”

“Another increase in the number of incidents has been perceptible since the start of the northern hemisphere’s autumn, which saw the start of a second wave of covid-19 infections, especially in Europe. The phenomenon has not been on the same scale and mainly concerns cases of violence and attacks. The crackdown seen in the first half of 2020 has nonetheless had lasting effects.”

“While most arrested journalists were held for just a few hours or, in some cases, a few days or weeks, 14 journalists who were arrested (arrested worldwide for “unfair and imprecise coverage” of the pandemic)in connection with their coverage of the pandemic are still being held at the end of the year”, in three regions: Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It’s in Asia, the continent where covid-19 emerged and where the most press freedom violations have been tallied in connection with the pandemic, thatthe most covid detainees are located: seven in China, two in Bangladesh and one in Myanmar.”

RSF also underlines that China ranks 177th out of 180 in the “2020 RSF World Press Freedom Index” and is the biggest prison in the world for journalists, with at least 120 detained or missing according to the most recent count made by RSF itself.

“In the Middle East,” round-up concludes, “where several countries have taken advantage of the pandemic to step up control over the media and news reporting, three journalists are still being held for articles linked to the pandemic: two in Iran and one in Jordan. In Africa, one journalist is still held in Rwanda – on a charge of “violating lockdown regulations.”

Full Report “Round Up 2020 – Journalists detained, held hostage and missing” by RSF
“Trucker 19” by RSF
“2020 RSF World Press Freedom Index” by RSF