CPJ’s annual prison census reveals alarming trends in global press freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently released its annual prison census, shedding light on the precarious state of press freedom worldwide. The census, conducted on December 1, 2023, disclosed distressing figures, marking the second-highest number of journalists behind bars since its inception in 1992. The report serves as a stark reminder of the pervasive authoritarianism and the concerted efforts of governments to stifle independent voices.

On the census date, CPJ documented a total of 320 journalists imprisoned globally. A staggering 168 of them face false news and anti-state charges, such as terrorism, in retaliation for their critical coverage. In 66 cases, the detained individuals are yet to be informed of the charges they are facing. The data underscores the widespread use of transnational repression, as some governments extend their efforts to threaten and harass journalists beyond their own borders.

A snapshot of Sub-Saharan Africa

Eritrea emerged as the seventh-worst jailer of journalists globally, with 16 journalists in detention. Notably, Eritrea holds the unenviable position of being the worst offender on the African continent. Shockingly, those imprisoned in Eritrea, including some of the longest-known cases globally, have never been formally charged.

Within sub-Saharan Africa, the number of jailed journalists increased from 31 in 2022 to 47 on December 1, 2023. Ethiopia and Cameroon ranked as the second- and third-worst countries in the region, with 8 and 6 journalists incarcerated, respectively. The situation in Ethiopia, despite a peace agreement in 2022 ending a two-year civil war, remains precarious, with all eight journalists in CPJ’s census arrested in 2023 for covering ongoing conflicts in the country.

The data also highlighted media crackdowns in Senegal, Zambia, Angola, and Madagascar. Senegal, with five journalists in jail, has only appeared twice on the census previously, in 2008 and 2022, each time with one journalist incarcerated. Notably, Madagascar appeared for the first time on the census, detaining one journalist.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Angola, Burundi, and Nigeria each had one journalist listed in the 2023 census. DRC’s case, involving journalist Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala, raised concerns about the criminalisation of journalism, as authorities applied both the penal code and a new digital code and press law to prosecute and imprison journalists for disseminating “false news” and sharing information electronically.

Limitations of the census

It is crucial to note that the prison census exclusively accounts for journalists in government custody and does not include those who have disappeared or are held captive by non-state actors. CPJ classifies such cases as “missing” or “abducted.”

Nonetheless, the CPJ report underscores the urgent need for global action to protect press freedom. It highlights the urgent need for concerted efforts to safeguard journalists, uphold freedom of the press, and counteract the alarming trends of authoritarianism and suppression of independent voices worldwide.

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