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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Global Toolbox

Journalists in jail: Locking up the truth

By Bruce C. Swaffield

Between 145 and 150 journalists are in jails around the world, as of early May.

China and Iran have the most: 34 in each country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Figures from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are slightly lower: 30 in China and 27 in Iran.

The nations next in line are Eritrea and Burma. RSF claims 29 and 14, respectively, while CPJ estimates 17 and 13, respectively.

No matter the difference, the numbers still are shocking, especially in this day and age. It is hard to believe that journalists are being imprisoned for all kinds of alleged crimes, such as “leaking state secrets,” “inciting subversion,” “engaging in propaganda against the state” and “illegal congregation.”

In addition to being jailed, these journalists suffer other abuses. Often, they are denied visitors, proper medical attention, adequate food or water, sufficient clothing, and standard living conditions. On occasion, they are tortured and beaten. Their cells are dark, moldy chambers — hot in the summer and cold in winter — infested with bugs and rats.

This is the price they pay for speaking out against injustice, inequality and crime. They just wanted to tell other people the real truth. Now they must speak through bars of censorship, if they are able to be heard at all.

There is the case of a reporter in Eritrea who disappeared in July 2000. Security agents arrested Ghebrehiwet Keleta on his way to work at a private weekly newspaper, Tsigenay. CPJ reports, “He has not been heard from since.”

In June 2009, a freelancer in Iran was sentenced to 34 lashes and five years in jail. Bahman Ahmadi Amouee wrote for reformist newspapers and was arrested along with several others, including his wife, who was released in August on bail. CPJ said he told her he was being kept part of the time in a 10-by-11-foot cell with as many as 40 people.

Another Iranian, a university student in Tehran who was a blogger, was arrested in February 2009 for “illegal congregation, actions against national security and propagating against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Mohammad Pour Abdollah remains in jail with one more year to serve. “Several news websites said he had been tortured while in custody at Ghezel Hesar Prison, a facility that houses hardened criminals,” according to CPJ.

A lawyer who was a stringer for the BBC was arrested in Myanmar (Burma) seven years ago because he “illegally passed information to ‘antigovernment’ organizations operating in border areas.” Ne Min, also known as Win Shwe, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, CPJ said. Min finished a 10-year term for similar offenses in 1998.

By far, the harshest country is China. An employee at a state-run radio station in the northwestern region was locked up in 2008 for “splittism.” Mehbube Abrak worked in the advertising department of Xinjiang People’s Radio Station, CPJ explained. “Her colleagues told the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia that her imprisonment stemmed from articles criticizing the government that were posted on overseas websites.”

Another Chinese journalist was charged with “inciting subversion” in connection with information he was gathering about earthquake damage. Tan Zuoren “had been investigating the deaths of schoolchildren killed in the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province when he was detained in Chengdu,” CPJ said. “Tan, believing that shoddy school construction contributed to the high death toll, had intended to publish the results of his investigation ahead of the first anniversary of the earthquake, according to international news reports.”

Interestingly, Zuoren was not charged with any crime relating to the information he was about to release. Instead, authorities arrested and sentenced him to five years in prison for what he wrote about the 1989 uprisings in Tiananmen Square and had published overseas in 2007.

These are only some of the journalists who are spending today inside of a cell. Similar stories are reflected over and over again in one country after another. The number of prisoners is staggering.

You and I can help these people. We can get involved with RSF or CPJ. We can even send letters, faxes and emails (not to mention phone calls) to embassies, government officials and the United Nations. Pick a country and make your voice heard. It could mean the difference for one person or for the future of our profession in that nation.

Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He holds a B.S. from Kent State University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Miami. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee. Contact him at brucswa@regent.edu.

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