The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide is the highest ever recorded in the 30 years that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has produced its prison census, the organization said Wednesday. A record 363 journalists were behind bars as of December 1, 2022, a 20% increase over 2021, CPJ’s annual prison census showed.
Iran has soared to become the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with 62 imprisoned on December 1, rising from tenth place in 2021, a reflection of authorities’ ruthless crackdown on the women-led uprisings that erupted in September. The regime has imprisoned a record number of female journalists—22 out of the 49 arrested since the start of the protests are women—in an effort to suppress truthful reporting about the demonstrations. Iran is followed by China, Myanmar, Turkey, and Belarus, all countries led by autocrats armed with mechanisms to silence the press.
“The record number of journalists in jail is a crisis that mirrors an erosion of democracy globally,” said CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg. “This year’s prison census brings into sharp relief the lengths governments will go to silence reporting that seeks to hold power to account. Criminalizing journalism has impacts far beyond the individual in jail: it stifles vital reporting that helps keep the public safe, informed, and empowered.”
Governments resort to retaliatory charges and the abuse of legal structures to punish the press, such as by crafting legislation with vague wording that criminalizes factual reporting. The 2022 census shows that anti-state charges are used most frequently to imprison journalists, ranging from alleged terrorism to sharing information contrary to official narratives. Alarmingly, in 131 cases, no charge has been registered at all, leaving journalists to languish behind bars with little legal recourse.
“The prospect of lengthy legal processes and long jail sentences is a way to intimidate journalists into silence. It sows distrust in the media, creating an environment in which abuses of power can flourish,” said Ginsberg.
Punitive tactics include predawn raids, the seizure of journalists’ devices, and the removal of licenses required to legally operate a news entity. Russia’s legal reforms, enacted after the invasion of Ukraine, outlaw “fake” reporting on the war and have served to practically snuff out the country’s independent news outlets. In many countries, even those with lower numbers of imprisoned journalists, complex and drawn-out legal cases have a chilling effect that force journalists to stop publishing, news outlets to close, and in extreme cases result in journalists fleeing into exile. CPJ’s data consistently shows that those imprisoned are overwhelmingly local journalists covering their own countries and communities. The incarceration and treatment of Kurdish journalists held in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey underscores the systemic persecution experienced by this group.
After a 12-year hiatus, Afghanistan returns to CPJ’s census with three imprisoned journalists, as conditions for the press have faced serious setbacks since the return of the Taliban regime. Georgia, an emerging democracy with a mixed press freedom record, which is increasingly home to exiled journalists from elsewhere in the region, is listed in the census for the first time.
As in recent years, media suppression in China (43 journalists imprisoned), Myanmar (42), and Vietnam (21) have placed those countries among the world’s worst offenders.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea (16) remains the region’s worst jailer of journalists, ranking ninth globally. Journalists there have been held without trial or access to their families or lawyers for periods ranging from 17 to 22 years.
The relatively low number of jailed journalists in the Americas—two in Nicaragua, one in Cuba, and one in Guatemala—belies the continued decline of press freedom across the region, as 2022 was especially deadly for journalists reporting in Mexico and Haiti. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a CPJ partner, recorded 12 arrests and detentions of journalists across the U.S. during 2022, all of whom were freed by the time of the December 1 census.
Throughout Europe and Central Asia, press freedom is still under attack. Authorities in Turkey (40) continue to pursue journalists, as evidenced by the report’s in-jail interview with Hatice Duman, Turkey’s longest-jailed journalist who was imprisoned in 2003. As in 2021, Belarus (26) is the fifth worst jailer of journalists in this year’s census. Russia (19) assumes eighth place with several journalists facing sentences of up to 10 years on charges of spreading “fake news.”
In addition to Iran, in the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt (21) and Saudi Arabia (11) remain among the world’s top 10 jailers of journalists.
While 2022 has been especially grim for defenders of press freedom, CPJ advocacy contributed to the early release of at least 130 imprisoned journalists worldwide.
CPJ’s prison census is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on December 1, 2022. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at http://cpj.org. CPJ’s data includes detailed information about each imprisoned journalist in every country listed, including the circumstances around their jailing, legal proceedings, and advocacy around each particular case.
- CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide.