Last year was the most dangerous year ever for journalists. Eighteen journalists were killed around the world in 2017, a record number were imprisoned and threats against the press seemingly have become common, even in the West.
“There are worrying developments, and they align with what we have seen in the last few years,” Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, told The Washington Post. “The political cost of this sort of behavior has diminished, and that tips the balance in the wrong direction.” He pointed out that President Trump has met with the leaders of all the countries that currently jail journalists in mass numbers, and that there is no indication that press freedom came up in any of them.
The threats are extensive: extrajudicial executions, hostage taking by both government and nonstate actors, state-sanctioned surveillance, prosecution under obscure laws, public smear campaigns and more. Reporters around the world have been accused of terrorism, targeted as enemies of the people, and subjected to opaque and sometimes-secret legal proceedings.
Many of those abuses are happening in a small number of countries, which are fueling the historically dangerous global climate.
In Mexico, drug cartels and corrupt government officials have used grotesque acts of violence to silence journalists reporting on the country's drug war, and the number of journalists who have been killed, imprisoned or have disappeared has risen steadily.
Of the 48 journalists killed worldwide in 2017, according to data from CPJ, six of those killings took place in Mexico, as did the first of 2018. Carlos Dominguez, a 77-year-old columnist who wrote about corruption and organized crime in Mexico for more than 40 years, was stabbed at a traffic light in Nuevo Laredo in the presence of his family on Jan. 13. No arrests have been made in his case.
“There is no indication that the situation for journalists in Mexico will improve. There's a complete lack of political will to put a stop to these killings,” Margaux Ewen, the North America director of Reporters Without Borders, told The Post.
Turkey, meanwhile, has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the past two years. Of the record-high 262 journalists who were jailed because of their work last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 73 of them were incarcerated in Turkey.
On Jan. 23, four more journalists were arrested there for posts on social media that were critical of the Turkish government's recent invasion of northern Syria. Officially, the journalists were all charged with “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” which has become a common catchall accusation against journalists who voice opposition to the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Twelve of the 20 journalists imprisoned in Egypt last year were not convicted or sentenced for any criminal offense. Some have spent years behind bars. Among them are photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, who works under the pseudonym Shawkan, who has been in pretrial detention for more than four years. Zeid, who is anemic and requires regular blood transfusions, has been denied proper medical care.
Governments increasingly use the pretense that journalists are accomplices of foreign actors to justify imprisonments — often without providing due process or trial. Of the journalists imprisoned last year, 194 — nearly three-quarters of the total — were being held on anti-state charges.
“The reframing of repression as anti-terror,” according to Simon, is a long-term trend that predates the Trump era, but “there is some evidence that governments are taking advantage of his rhetoric to justify arrests.” Ewen said this also includes “countries where you don't usually see this type of rhetoric or rationale.”
Both pointed to the dismissive attitude of Burma's de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Two journalists working for Reuters are being held in Burma under an obscure law called the Official Secrets Act, which dates to British colonial rule. The journalists, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, allegedly “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media” as they reported on the Burmese military's campaign against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. Suu Kyi has refused to engage in dialogue about releasing them.
One journalist is even being held in the United States, although not for his work. Emilio Gutierrez, a Mexican journalist who sought asylum in the United States in 2008, was arrested last month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and is being threatened with deportation. Gutierrez, the 2017 winner of the National Press Club's Freedom of the Press award, says he would face certain death in Mexico if he were returned to his native country.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that only 18 journalists were killed worldwide in 2017.