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Feb 21 2012 (IPS) - UNITED NATIONS – The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide reached a 15-year high in 2011, driven by repressive states seeking to choke the flow of information.
Repressive governments, militants and criminal groups across the globe are leveraging both new and traditional tactics to control information, according to “Attacks on the Press”, a yearly survey released today by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Their aim is to obscure wrongdoing, silence dissent and reduce citizens’ power, the report also said.
CPJ had identified 179 writers, editors and photojournalists behind bars on December 1, 2012, up 34 from 2010, according to CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
With 42 journalists in jail, Iran had the most imprisoned journalists for the second consecutive year. Next was Eritrea with 28, followed by China (27), Burma (12) and Vietnam (9).
“The government has also restricted adversarial reporting by using sophisticated technology to block websites,” he said, by “jamming satellite signals and banning publications”.
In the Americas, although authorities continue to detain journalists on a short-term basis, not a single journalist was in jail for work-related reasons on December 1, 2012.
Imprisonments also continued to decline gradually in Europe and Central Asia, where only eight journalists were jailed, the lowest tally in six years.
Nevertheless, the 2011 census found an alarming rise in the number of journalists held without charge or due process. 65 journalists, accounting for more than a third of those in prison worldwide, were being held without any publicly disclosed charge, many of them in secret prisons without access to lawyers or family members.
In some instances, governments such as those in Eritrea, Syria and Gambia have denied the very existence of these jailed journalists.
CPJ research also shows the impunity rate across the world remains stubbornly high, hovering just below 90 percent, and largely unchanged over the past five years.
In Libya, where CPJ recorded a single media fatality between 1992 and 2010, five journalists were killed in 2011. Syria and Tunisia both saw their first media fatality since CPJ began keeping detailed records in 1992.
In Bahrain, two journalists died in custody from what the government called medical complications, although there were widespread allegations that the two had been tortured.
By 2011, about 40 percent of media fatalities came during coverage of street demonstrations, many during the series of popular uprisings that swept the Arab world.
“Journalists, particularly independent journalists, bloggers and ‘citizen’ journalists played a huge role in the Arab uprising,” Rober Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director, told IPS.
“They harnessed the power of social media and embraced new technology to broadcast news and information that only a few years earlier would have been impossible to report let alone publish. Some were detained and harassed for their work; others paid with their lives.”
“The authorities, for example in Egypt, tried to staunch the flood of news and images pouring out of Tahrir Square by shutting down mobile phone service and at one point hitting the ‘kill switch’ for the entire Egyptian Internet. But news kept flowing,” Mahoney added.
“Reporting played an important role too in the Libyan conflict, but there the cost in terms of journalists’ lives was high, with at least five journalists killed in 2011.”
In Syria, the regime enforced an effective media blackout in March 2011, banning international journalists from reporting or entering the country and detaining local journalists who tried to cover protests seeking an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
In November 2011, cameraman Ferzat Jarban was the first journalist to be killed in Syria in connection with his work since CPJ began keeping detailed records in 1992.
“Journalists in Syria are in tremendous danger because independent reporting and analysis is the last thing the government in Damascus wants,” Mahoney told IPS.
The Syrian government has denied most foreign reporters access to the country, and those allowed in are heavily restricted.
“Those who want to do their own first hand reporting have either had to slip their Syrian minders (and that is difficult and dangerous for their sources) or sneak into the country, often from Turkey. Crossing the border clandestinely is extremely hazardous. If you are caught by a Syrian patrol it’s game over.”
“Those bearing the brunt of the Syrian crackdown on the press are local journalists. They are the ones who provide foreign journalists with their news and access,” Mahoney added.
Just last week, 14 journalists, bloggers and press freedom activists with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression were arrested, and in the past year, six journalists have been killed, with many more fleeing the country.
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