Governments jailing more Internet journalists

A new report from the Committee to Project Journalists finds that increasingly, online journalists are being imprisoned for their work, causing an increase in the number of incarcerated journalists for the second straight year. CPJ said that as of December 1, 49 of 134 imprisoned journalists worldwide work via the Internet — the highest number in that category since CPJ began keeping records in 1997. Print journalists remain the largest category of imprisoned journalists; 67 print reporters, editors and photographers are behind bars, CPJ said.

China, Eritrea and Cuba top the list of governments responsible for jailing journalists, but the United States is responsible for incarcerating two journalists without charges, as part of the War on Terror. Bilal Hussein, a free-lance photographer for the Associated Press, has been held by US Security forces since April 12, 2006. Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was arrested December 15, 2001 by US forces in Afghanistan; he is currently held at Guantanamo Bay.

According to the 2006 Press Freedom Index compiled by another journalists’-rights group, Reporters Without Borders, the United States’ treatment of journalists placed it at 53rd on its press freedom list, tied with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. China, Cuba and Eritrea ranked 163, 165 and 166 on the list, making them the countries with third, fifth and sixth most repressive records in the area of free expression. When the RSF began producing its list five years ago, the US rank was at 17.

Abi Wright, CPJ’s communications director, spoke to OJR about the new study of jailed journalists:

Wright: I think the rise in the number of Internet journalists on our prison list this year is startling, and reflective of trends that we’ve been following since 1997, when we documented the first jailing of an Internet writer. I think there’s two things going on. First of all, there are more people writing and doing journalism online. Secondly, the perennial offenders, China and Cuba , in particular, are just saying an increasing, or ever-present, I should say, intolerance towards reporting and dissent in any form, and online in particular.

OJR: You’ve pointed out that one in three of the journalists now in jail is an Internet blogger, web-based editor, or online reporter, and a large number of these people are not necessarily paid journalists, but citizen journalists?

Wright: Exactly. The nature varies from country to country. In countries like China, access to work as a journalist is very restricted. There’s party membership and all kinds of memberships required and it’s highly regulated and restricted. Writers and citizens have found the Internet to be one way that they can get information and transfer information. In Cuba, which is a slightly different example, a lot of journalists whose work ends up online, they actually telephone or transmit the information through different means, but it ends up being published online because they have no other way of just doing journalism there through official routes. So it’s reflective of the media environments in all of those countries.

OJR: Many of the people you are talking about are being held in secret locations and without charges. How do you get information about what’s happened to them?

Wright: Well, that is another sort of regrettable trend that we have documented, that 20 of the journalists on our imprisoned list this year, or 15 percent, are being held without charge. We have sources in countries like Eritrea, where we are able to verify information about journalists there. But it’s very difficult. We have reports that [several journalists held in Eritrea] may have been killed or may have died since they’ve been in prison. So, it’s challenging to get information about them, but it’s a real priority for us, absolutely. Journalists like [AP] photographer Bilal Hussein, and the cameraman for al-Jazeera, Sami al-Haj, we work closely with news organizations who have had employees detained to get information. And we also appeal directly to the US government about these cases.

OJR: Have international human rights organizations, the Red Cross, the UN or similar organizations been able to get to these people to verify their well-being?

Wright: In the case of Sami al-Haj, I know his lawyer has been in touch. He has a lawyer who is in communications with him. Communication with Bilal Hussein has been more problematic. He’s been held since April. We have called repeatedly on US authorities to make public the information that they allegedly have on these individuals and to either charge them, or release them. Different officials have assured us that they have evidence of some activity that could be seen as criminal, but we just don’t know what that is.

OJR: Leaders of the new Congress that will take office in January have promised new investigations into various aspects of the conduct of the War on Terror. Do you know whether the treatment of journalists will be part of that investigation?

Wright: I don’t know whether the treatment of journalists or international press freedom will be an issue for them, but I can tell you that during the confirmation hearings for [newly-confirmed US Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates, Senator Warner of Virginia specifically asked about journalists’ safety, and mentioned CPJ. So we know that it is on lawmakers’ minds. And we are certainly doing everything we can to make sure that the situation for journalists, especially imprisoned journalists, in countries like China, Cuba, Eritrea, and also of course, those in US custody — that these cases are brought to the attention of lawmakers.

OJR: One case that CPJ has expressed concern about is the murder of Brad Will, an independent journalist who was gunned down October 27 while filming a protest by striking teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico . Some have called for the US to get involved in the investigation. What’s CPJ’s position?

Wright: My understanding is that the most recent development in that case has been very disturbing — the individuals who were arrested and charged with his murder have been set free.

OJR: Right.

Wright: We’ve been very active in Mexico, where there has been a string of murders, especially along the [US-Mexican] border area, where there’s known drug trafficking. We called on Mexico to appoint a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists. Under Pres. Vicente Fox, such a prosecutor was appointed, and I know that there is momentum to bring these crimes to a federal level, which would help expedite the prosecution of these cases. So from CPJ’s standpoint, we are pressuring Mexican authorities to bring those responsible for the murder of Brad Will to justice.

OJR: Any final thoughts that you hope readers will take away from this report.

Wright: I think it reflects a real change in the journalism landscape, when you have the second category of journalists behind bars being online journalists that shows a tremendous growth over the last decade. I think there’s no question. I think there’s no question, especially in Western democracies, but also in these other growing developing countries, that the Internet is a major conduit for information, and it will continue to be so. We will be fighting government attempts to crackdown on this as much as we can.

When the Internet was formed, the idea behind it was that it would be impossible to control and to censor. These governments are challenging that notion. I think it’s important for groups like CPJ and other members of the online community to remain vigilant in publicizing these attacks on journalists.

About Kim Pearson

I teach writing for journalism and interactive multimedia at The College of New Jersey. I also blog at Professor Kim's News Notes ( and BlogHer ( for which I serve as a contributing editor. My current interests are in coming up with new models for interactive storytelling, including the possibilities that might derive from employing videogame narrative conventions into news presentation. I have been reading OJR with enthusiasm since its inception, and I look forward to participating more fully in the dialogue here.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville about 200 years ago when he visited the United States wrote”You can’t have real newspaper without democracy,and you can’t have democracy without newspapers”
    In my country(Albania)has not democracy,and how can have newspapers.Here in Albania newspapers are in use to governments