“We will go back to work. Absolutely. We will do everything we were normally doing before this episode happened,” Lina Attalah, a fearless editor at Mada Masr, told me.
A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international press freedom watchdog, documents how this sort of crackdown is becoming routine for journalists around the world. According to CPJ research, at least 250 journalists around the world are currently behind bars.
CPJ researchers track laws that equate critical journalism with terrorism, smear campaigns designed to erode public trust in the media by destroying the reputations of prominent reporters, and the weaponization by authoritarian states of communication tools such as messaging apps.
Journalists around the world — from Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East — uniformly report a surge of new laws in their countries aimed at “fake news,” which is usually defined as anything that authorities deem to be against their individual interests.
For the first time since 2015, Turkey did not have the world’s largest number of reporters in prison — but that’s not because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suddenly began to allow media workers to do their jobs without interference.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The regime in Ankara has shut down more than 100 media outlets, arrested dozens of journalists on terrorism-related charges and forced many more into exile — all in what CPJ calls a coordinated state effort to “stamp out independent reporting and criticism.”
But this year more journalists were locked up in China than anywhere else. For Beijing, this dubious honor coincides with efforts to oppress two distinct groups.
The report finds that dozens of journalists in Xinjiang province, some of whom have not been active as reporters in over a decade, were arrested and jailed as news about the internment of more than a million Muslim Uighurs began to reach the world.
The subjugation of the Uighur people is not new, but the crackdown on expression in Hong Kong is. As residents of China’s freest territory stand up against efforts to revoke even more of its dwindling political autonomy, journalists chronicling those protests have been detained. One of them, Sophia Huang Xueqin, was arrested in October and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” A good definition of journalism.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are each holding at least 26 journalists in prison, by CPJ’s count. But the differences in circumstance bear comparing.
Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, professes to be undertaking a series of reforms that allegedly include greater freedom of expression. The facts tell a different story.
The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents was no outlier. Since his death, the kingdom’s detention, torture and imprisonment of critical voices has continued — if not accelerated.
The authorities in Riyadh and their enablers at home and abroad continue efforts to whitewash the brutality of the kingdom. Last week the Saudi Journalists Association held a two-day media conference that claimed to demonstrate the commitment to reform. The fate of Khashoggi and others who remain behind bars was not on the agenda.
Journalists in Egypt tell me that under President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the atmosphere is more stifling than ever before.
During the despotic rule of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, some criticism — especially in the form of satire — was allowed. The regime viewed it as a useful way to let people air some of their frustrations. When Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolution, press freedom flourished, in large part because his immediate successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, was so unpopular.
As the Mada Masr incident shows, Sissi has learned from what he considers the mistakes of his predecessors. He has a zero-tolerance policy on dissent.
The record of the Trump administration as a defender of press freedom has been inconsistent at best. “The U.S. still does have this influence, and this is important in Egypt and the region,” Justin Shilad, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher for CPJ, told me. “The State Department has been critical of Iran, for example, but they’ve been conspicuously silent on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region.”
Iran’s government has the most egregious record on attempting to silence journalists beyond its own borders. Those who work for Persian-language news outlets outside the country must endure harassment of their loved ones inside Iran. This is a habit that cannot be allowed to flourish.
We’re living through a bad moment for democracy, and nothing better reflects that than the eroding state of press freedom around the world.
It is in the national interest of the United States to renew our commitment to what was long one of our sacred values. The best way to do that is by defending free expression everywhere and holding its opponents accountable. For now, though, we seem to be doing the opposite.
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