Report: US sixth among nations jailing journalists

We recently noted how Ethiopia and Eritrea, as they mutually demonize each other, are both engaging in a crackdown on their own media. Now the Committee to Protect Journalists, in their year-end report on imprisoned journalists worldwide, finds the two Horn of Africa rivals to be the worst offendors after China and Cuba. Uzbekistan was in fifth place, while the nasty and ostracized dictatorship of Burma was tied for sixth with the Leader of the Free World—that’s right, none other than the good ol’ US of A.

China, Cuba, two African nations are top jailers of journalists
Ethiopian crackdown fuels worldwide increase;
U.S. is 6th among nations

New York, December 13, 2005—China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Ethiopia are the world’s leading jailers of journalists in 2005, together accounting for two-thirds of the 125 editors, writers, and photojournalists imprisoned around the world, according to a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The United States, which is holding journalists in detention centers in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, rose to sixth among countries jailing journalists, just behind Uzbekistan and tied with Burma, CPJ found.

“Antistate” allegations, including subversion, divulging state secrets, and acting against the interests of the state, were the most common charges used to imprison journalists worldwide. Seventy-eight journalists were jailed under such charges, many by the Chinese and Cuban governments.

A sudden and far-reaching crackdown on the Ethiopian press this fall fueled an increase in the number of journalists jailed worldwide, according to CPJ’s census of those held on December 1, 2005. The global tally is three more than the 122 imprisoned journalists CPJ found in its 2004 census. Twenty-four countries imprisoned journalists in 2005, reflecting an increase from the 20 nations included in the 2004 census.

“We’re disturbed to see the number of jailed journalists rise, and we’re particularly troubled that the list of the worst abusers now includes Ethiopia and the United States,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Journalists covering conflict, unrest, corruption, and human rights abuses face a growing risk of incarceration in many countries, where governments seek to disguise their repressive acts as legitimate legal processes.”

For the seventh consecutive year, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 32 imprisoned. Fifteen, or nearly half, of the cases in China involve Internet journalists; more than three-quarters of the cases were brought under vague “antistate” laws.

Cuba ranked second, with 24 reporters, writers, and editors behind bars, most of them jailed in the country’s massive March 2003 crackdown on dissidents and the independent press. Eritrea was the leader among African countries, with 15 journalists in prison, many of them held incommunicado in secret jails for reasons the government would not fully explain, according to CPJ research.

Neighboring Ethiopia imprisoned 13 journalists, all of whom were swept up by authorities seeking to quell dissent amid civil unrest in November. Ethiopian police blocked most private newspapers from publishing; raided newspaper offices, confiscating computers, documents and other materials; and issued a “wanted list” of editors, writers, and dissidents.

Uzbekistan ranked fifth among countries, with six journalists in prison. Burma and the United States followed, with five apiece. U.S. detention centers in Iraq were holding four journalists, while the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo held one.

Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJ’s analysis:

• Forty-one journalists whose work appeared primarily on the Web or in other electronic forms were in jail, accounting for just under one-third of the cases worldwide.

• Nine were charged with criminal defamation, the second most common allegation used to imprison journalists worldwide.

• Another five were jailed for reporting what governments called “false” information.

• No charge was publicly disclosed in 11 cases. The United States and Eritrea each account for five such cases.

• The longest-serving journalists in CPJ’s census were Chen Renjie and Lin Youping, who were jailed in China in July 1983 for publishing a pamphlet titled Ziyou Bao (Freedom Report). Codefendant Chen Biling was later executed.

One of the imprisoned Chinese journalists, Shi Tao, was honored with CPJ’s 2005 International Press Freedom Award. A freelance journalist for Internet publications and an editor for Dangdai Shang Bao, a business newspaper, Shi is serving a 10-year sentence for “leaking state secrets abroad.” Shi was imprisoned in November 2004 for posting online notes detailing the government’s instructions on how the news media were to cover the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The government did not classify the instructions as secret until after the fact.

CPJ is waging a campaign seeking Shi’s release, collecting signatures from prominent journalists and press freedom advocates. Two of three imprisoned journalists honored by CPJ since 2003—Burma’s Aung Pwint and Cuba’s Manuel Vázquez Portal—were freed due in part to the international advocacy campaigns of CPJ and others. The third, Burmese documentary filmmaker Nyein Thit, remains in jail.

CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. The organization has sent letters expressing its serious concerns to each country that has imprisoned a journalist.

In addition, CPJ sent requests during the year to Eritrean and U.S. officials seeking details in the cases in which journalists were held without publicly disclosed charges. Eritrean officials did not respond directly to CPJ, but Information Minister Ali Abdu told Agence France-Press that the jailings were an internal issue that did not warrant explanation. Journalists jailed in Iraq were deemed security threats by U.S. and Iraqi officials, according to U.S. military officials, but those officials would not disclose specific charges or supporting evidence. A U.S. military spokesman would not discuss the detention in Guantánamo.

CPJ’s list is a snapshot of journalists incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2005. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at CPJ conducted its annual census one month earlier than in past years to provide a more timely year-end analysis.

CPJ considers journalists imprisoned when governments deprive them of their liberty because of their work. Journalists remain on CPJ’s list until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released

Journalists who either disappear or are abducted by nonstate entities, including criminal gangs, rebels, or militant groups, are not included on the imprisoned list. Their cases are classified as “missing” or “abducted.” Details of these cases are also available on CPJ’s Web site.

Among those not listed is ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was freed from US federal custody before Dec. 1. The five journalists currently in US custody include four in Iraq:

Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, CBS News
Imprisoned: April 5, 2005

Hussein, an Iraqi cameraman working for CBS News, was taken into custody after being wounded by U.S. forces’ fire on April 5 while he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq. CBS News reported at the time that the U.S. military said footage in the journalist’s camera led them to suspect he had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. AFP also cited U.S. officials as saying the journalist “tested positive for explosive residue.”

No charges have been made public and the evidence used to hold him remains classified. The New York Times reported that the U.S. military referred Hussein’s case to Iraqi justice officials who reviewed Hussein’s file but declined to prosecute him. Nevertheless, Hussein remained in U.S. custody.

U.S. military officials have made unspecific accusations that Hussein was “engaged in anti-coalition activity,” and that he had been “recruiting and inciting Iraqi nationals to violence against coalition forces and participating in attacks against coalition forces.” Military officials did not provide any evidence to support these accusations.

CBS, CPJ, and other groups sought information about the detention but were unable to obtain further details.

Samir Mohammed Noor, Reuters
Imprisoned: May 2005

Noor, a freelance television cameraman working for Reuters, was arrested by Iraqi troops at his home in the northern town of Tal Afar in May 2005 and ordered detained indefinitely by the U.S.-Iraqi Combined Review and Release Board, which oversees detentions in Iraq.

A U.S. military spokesman told the news agency that Noor was determined to be “an imperative threat to the coalition forces and the security of Iraq.” U.S. officials did not specify the basis for the accusation. Reuters said he was held at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

Ali al-Mashhadani, Reuters
Imprisoned: August 8, 2005

Al-Mashhadani, a freelance photographer and cameraman for Reuters news agency, was held incommunicado and without explanation by U.S. forces since his detention on August 8. Al-Mashhadani was taken from his home in Ramadi during a general sweep of the neighborhood by U.S. Marines who became suspicious after seeing pictures on his cameras, Reuters quoted his family as saying.

He was placed in Abu Ghraib Prison. Reuters reported that the U.S.-Iraqi Combined Review and Release Board, which oversees detentions in Iraq, determined that al-Mashhadani posed a “threat” and ordered his continued detention. U.S. officials told Reuters that al-Mashhadani would be denied access to counsel or family for 60 days, but would be granted a review of his case within 180 days. Officials did not publicly substantiate the basis for his continued detention.

Majed Hameed, Al-Arabiya and Reuters
Imprisoned: September 15, 2005

Hameed, a reporter working with the Dubai-based broadcaster Al-Arabiya and a freelancer for Reuters, was arrested along with several other men at a gathering that followed the funeral of a relative in Anbar province.

Both Reuters and Al-Arabiya have said his arrest appears connected to footage found on his camera by U.S. troops. U.S. officials did not explain the basis for his detention. According to Al-Arabiya, Hameed was held at a U.S. facility in western Anbar province.

And one at Guantanamo:

Sami Muhyideen al-Haj, Al-Jazeera
Imprisoned: December 15, 2001

Al-Haj, a 35-year-old Sudanese national and assistant cameraman for Al-Jazeera, was detained by Pakistani forces after he and an Al-Jazeera reporter attempted to re-enter southern Afghanistan at the Chaman border crossing in Pakistan, station officials said.

Al-Jazeera said it sought information from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and United States. It learned of his detention—first at a U.S. detention camp in Afghanistan and later at the U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay—from letters he sent to the station and to his wife in care of Al-Jazeera, beginning in April 2002. Initial letters identified him as detainee #JJJSDE, Al-Jazeera said.

Youssef al-Shouli, the reporter who was with al-Haj at the border, told CPJ that the cameraman was stopped by order of Pakistani intelligence. He said a Pakistani intelligence official said that there was a problem with al-Haj’s passport. Al-Shouli was not detained.

Al-Haj’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, told CPJ in October 2005 that his client was being held at Guantanamo as an accused “enemy combatant.” Smith said no specific allegations had been lodged and his client denied any wrongdoing. Al-Jazeera condemned the detention and said it fully supported al-Haj. Station representatives said al-Haj had worked for another Qatar television station before joining Al-Jazeera.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which administers the Guantanamo military facility, would not provide any information about al-Haj, nor would he confirm the journalist’s detention. He said the information constituted confidential intelligence.

The Guardian of London reported in September 2005 that U.S. military interrogators allegedly tried to recruit al-Haj as a spy. Interrogators allegedly told him he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite news network’s activities. In an interview with CPJ, Smith repeated the allegation. He said interrogators had been “trying to get Sami to become an informant against Al-Jazeera.”

See our last post on the torture and detention scandal, and the global state of press freedom.