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Jailing of Journalists Worldwide, with CPJ's Elana Beiser

December 19, 2018

Turkish journalists protesting in Istanbul, 2016. CREDIT: Hilmi Hacaloğlu/Voice of America/Public Domain

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Elana Beiser. She is editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) here in New York City.

Elana, great to see you today.

ELANA BEISER: Great to see you. Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: It's great to see you. Today is actually the 30th episode of an ongoing series we're doing called Information Warfare. We usually look at the way that information is deployed as warfare, but today we're doing the opposite, which is we're looking at how warfare is conducted on information, so to speak.

You and CPJ have just put out a big report looking at essentially the statistics of jailing of journalists around the world in 2018 as an ongoing series of data that you all are collecting. What are the main findings of your report for 2018?

ELANA BEISER: For 2018 we found that we fell slightly short in terms of the total number of journalists in jail for their work around the world, fell slightly short from the past two years that were consecutive records, but it's still very high at 251 journalists in jail around the world. It does make the last three years the highest period on record.

DEVIN STEWART: You mention in your report that Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for about half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row.

ELANA BEISER: That's right, more than half.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that the case?

ELANA BEISER: I think there is an argument to be made that these three countries are not feeling any consequences of their actions. Obviously, both Turkey and China have figured near the top of our list of worst jailers of journalists over the years on and off, but you see the numbers go up and down, which is partly due to internal political dynamics, but you also had a sense in the past that once they jailed dozens of journalists that they might then feel some international pressure in the coming months and ease up a little bit. But we haven't seen any easing up over the past couple of years.

You have to wonder to what extent that might be because of the lack of international pressure both here in the United States and in the European Union, who traditionally are two leaders in this area, standing up for human rights and freedom of the press. Both are fairly consumed with internal political considerations, and we don't see a lot of outspokenness about human rights.

DEVIN STEWART: Does your organization feel that putting pressure on behalf of free speech and journalists to be effective in terms of political pressure or rhetoric or statements or even quid pro quo—unless you free some journalists, we're not going to meet with you or something like that—are those effective?

ELANA BEISER: In some places. It really depends on the country. But we've seen a couple of places where it has been effective. Notably, over the years the number of journalists in jail in Vietnam has varied a little bit, in part because of pressure that officials in previous U.S. administrations had put on.

We've also seen in Ethiopia, where by the way we didn't record any journalists in jail for the first time I think since 2004 or something like that, a long time, this year, but that was largely because of a change of government there, so I'm getting a bit off-track. But in previous years, when Ethiopia did have more journalists in jail, we saw, for example, the Obama administration raise this ahead of an Obama trip to the capital of Ethiopia, and then we saw some journalists released as a result of that.

DEVIN STEWART: Another nuance to this data is that a vast majority—I think something like 90 percent—are local journalists who are thrown in jail. Why is that the case, and does that make it more challenging to put pressure because they might not be receiving global exposure to elevate their case?

ELANA BEISER: Absolutely. That's very true. We believe at CPJ that a huge part of our mandate is to put people in the limelight who do not have an international backing or large news organization behind them.

For example, the journalists who work for Reuters in Myanmar are getting quite a lot of attention these days, and we absolutely are on that bandwagon. We are supporting Reuters every way we can. In fact, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, Steve Adler, is a board member of CPJ, and so we've been working closely with them to help with that case. But we really feel like our greater role takes place for journalists who do not have the backing of a Reuters or a New York Times or Associated Press or The Guardian or whoever behind them, keeping their case in the limelight.

Why are journalists like that in jail so often? I think a lot of times they're just trying to report on their local communities, and they're ruffling feathers. A lot of times it's corruption and crime they're reporting on right where they live, and maybe a governor or a mayor isn't happy with that muckraking and tries to silence them.

DEVIN STEWART: This is something that I've heard in Southeast Asia. If a local politician is unhappy with you, you will disappear one way or another. It's not necessarily always official government initiatives; it can be "entrepreneurial," so to speak, where a politician hires someone to get rid of a pesky journalist.

I'm curious. How does CPJ get the data? It must be pretty challenging.

Also, we'll get to the second question, which is, what are the various types of jailings and also killings? Clearly, they're not all just official government throwing you in jail, but there's a lot of gray area in there as well.

ELANA BEISER: Absolutely. It is a huge project, this survey of journalists in jail, and it takes us more than a quarter of the year basically to get it done. What we do is we obviously try to report any time we hear of an arrest anywhere in the world, but we're not that huge of an organization, and we can't frankly keep track of all the arrests because there are so many of them.

That is why our prison census is actually that. It's a census. It's a one-day snapshot of journalists in jail on a particular day, December 1 of every year, midnight local time, are you behind bars or not? If you are, you make our list; if you're not, you don't.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you ask each government just to report?

ELANA BEISER: No, no. We actually begin the research as early as the beginning of September because even though we're aiming to capture who's in jail on a particular day, we obviously couldn't do it all in a day or even a week or a month.

So we begin in September to try to track down, and there's a wide range of sources that we use. We do query governments, but most of the time they will say that the people who are journalists in their jails are not there because of journalism, they're there because they're terrorists or some other reason, which we can come back to. You mentioned types of jailings. So we ask governments. We ask local press freedom groups. Most countries have one or two, or there are regional bodies that track this type of thing. There are journalists' unions, and of course we just have sources on the ground. We have several correspondents around the world who have local sources, and they just try to track down all the information they can. But it's a huge project.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the types of jailings that you discover and you observe? What would you say is the most common tactic to throw a journalist who, for example, doesn't deserve to be in jail? Is it something like tax evasion or something trumped up like that, or is it like you were saying earlier like terrorism or something like that?

ELANA BEISER: The tactic of something like tax evasion is used, but it is a minority compared with governments abusing anti-state laws, so terror laws, espionage laws, state secret acts, things like that. The Myanmar journalists we mentioned are in jail for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act.

Those top three jailers that you mentioned, Turkey, China, and Egypt, in particular focus on—if you report on a group or a movement or petition that is banned, then you reporting on it basically equates you with being a member of that group or that movement.

This is what we see in Turkey. Every one of the 68 journalists who is in jail in Turkey is facing anti-state charges. Most of them are accused of being members of a banned group or doing propaganda. I think they actually make it a verb, like "propagandizing" for a banned group. In almost every case, that's either the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or it is the alliance that run by the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who the Turks allege is responsible for the failed coup attempt in 2016. Every one of those 68 journalists is pretty much in jail for supposedly supporting one of those groups or maybe a couple of smaller socialist parties or something like that.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at another part of your website, you have jailing and you have killing of journalists worldwide over several decades, I believe.

ELANA BEISER: Since the early 1990s.

DEVIN STEWART: Early 1990s. That's a fantastic source of understanding what's going on here. I think it's under the "exploring data" section or something like that.

ELANA BEISER: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: I highly recommend everyone check that out because there are some very informative charts and graphs to try to understand patterns and trends.

One of the things I noted on there is that I think both jailings and killings of journalists over the past, say, 20-30 years, there have been waves, ups and downs, over many years. What do you make of that? I think there is a conventional wisdom today, at the end of 2018, that we're entering into an authoritarian era, strongmen. It's all over the news that this is a hostile environment for journalists. Yet if you look at killings alone, there has been actually a decrease in the past few years of killings, and there are big spikes in the past, including in 2009, which you and I were talking about before the podcast. Also, there had been similar spikes in jailings over the past 30 years.

I guess the question is, are we entering a trend of worsening environment for journalists, and if so, where's the proof?

ELANA BEISER: You are right that the number of jailings and killings of journalists does go up and down over different periods. I like to try to separate the two because I think they're signs of different things, different phenomenon.

With killings in particular there are a lot of factors that go into it. Conflict obviously is a big one, when there are a lot of journalists covering—in the early years in the Syrian conflict, for example, we saw a lot of journalists being killed. The last two years we've seen nine journalists each killed covering the conflict in Syria this year and last year, which is a decrease from I can't remember how many in 2012, I think was a high, it was something like 30. Those types of events obviously have a huge influence.

By the way, the relatively lower number of journalists being killed in Syria in the last two years might sound positive, but it's really a function of the lack of number of journalists who are even working there and able to cover it at all. It has certainly not gotten any safer for journalists working there, it's just there aren't as many people doing it, and therefore we're seeing fewer people die doing it. You have those sort of international considerations that do have a big effect on journalists killed.

With journalists imprisoned as well, of course, you see internal political dynamics playing out. The number of journalists imprisoned in Egypt the last couple of years, it was 20 last year; it's 25 this year. Part of that is a reflection of the fact that President Sisi ran for reelection this year. There were allegations of some irregularities. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for independent information. We had journalists trying to report on that, and some of those have been thrown in jail.

You see these individual events within countries obviously having an effect. The crackdown in Xinjiang in China is responsible for a large part of the increase in the number of journalists jailed in China in the last two years.

DEVIN STEWART: The majority of it.

ELANA BEISER: The majority of it.

But I do think that particularly with journalists imprisoned there is opportunity for the West, for leaders of democratic countries or blocs, to put some pressure on these countries and try to force them to be less repressive, but we just don't really see the United States and the European Union taking advantage of that, if they have that advantage. For example, in Egypt, where the United States is a strong supporter of the Egyptian government, as far as I understand, with military support and so forth, we don't hear of any conditions being placed, any public comments about the human rights or press freedom situation there.

We see all the headlines about the trade war between the United States and China, lots of comments about technology, but very little if any comments about the treatment of journalists or information or the Great Firewall, which is kind of fascinating, actually, because there's so much about China that we don't know. The United States is taking this strong stance against China, yet without more information about what their practices are and what their aims are. Surely there could be a more effective approach if there was more information coming out of there.

DEVIN STEWART: I totally agree. I've always been a little skeptical of China's crackdown on corruption, when you don't even have free speech or good reporting. How do you chase after crime when there's no crime beat?

ELANA BEISER: Right. I think that's why there are so many questions that hang over that entire anti-corruption initiative of President Xi's. Nobody knows exactly and to what extent it's about corruption and to what extent it's about stamping out his political enemies because there's no independent information to judge by.

DEVIN STEWART: Going back to the sort of zeitgeist of today, we're entering into this authoritarian regime—I'm paraphrasing what the conventional wisdom is out there—Time magazine, the Person of the Year was something like "The Guardians of Democracy" or something like that. It was essentially celebrating stalwart, stoic journalists who go out against danger, which there is no doubt that it has always been a dangerous profession, and maybe driven by a sense of purpose and hard work. Those are all certainly virtues, and those are virtues that humanity should celebrate and commend.

But I think Time magazine's implication was that journalists are under historic threat around the world. They had a video accompanying the cover story that really hit that home with clips of President Trump making derogatory comments toward journalists in the United States, for example, and also highlighting the Khashoggi case in Turkey, which is, according to your report, the number-one biggest jailer of journalists.

ELANA BEISER: That's correct.

DEVIN STEWART: So that's pretty interesting.

You personally were also a journalist by training and background. Does it feel different now, and if so, how? What's the worry, and what would you like to see happen?

ELANA BEISER: I think the difference—and I see where you're going—when it comes to hard data to back up this perception that journalism is under threat, it's mixed because, as you say, the number of journalists killed and imprisoned varies over the years.

I do think our imprisoned numbers show something alarming in that there have been three years above 250 journalists in jail worldwide, three consecutive years of that. That is unprecedented in our data since the early 1990s.

I think if you just look at the incidents happening in the places that are considered or were considered democracies, if you look at the Philippines—we've talked about that a little bit—traditionally there has been a safety issue for journalists in the Philippines. We have a large number of journalists on our list of journalists killed in the Philippines. They're not usually in Manila, they're provincial journalists working in their local communities and reporting on local corruption. There is a lot of impunity. Very few of those crimes have ever been solved, and so that cycle perpetuates. But at the same time you've had this freewheeling press in the Philippines. My sense is that—I'm not an expert on the Philippines—there haven't been a lot of restrictions or repressions. It has been kind of a free-for-all. You can report on whatever you want.

But most recently, and I'm thinking of this because you mentioned the Time piece, and one of its focuses was on Maria Ressa, the editor of this website Rappler. And I am not aware of that kind of government persecution of a journalist in the Philippines until now. Maybe before I was working in freedom of the press there are instances in history, but it does feel like a shift from the Philippines of the last decade or so.

Then you see places like Hungary and Poland, where there are no journalists in jail. There are not journalists getting killed that we know of, but there is a perception there—we've had a correspondent travel to these places and talk to journalists—that the space for them to do their jobs is shrinking very quickly. I know in Hungary there has been this great consolidation of the media under—

DEVIN STEWART: Orbán?

ELANA BEISER: Yes, under friends of Orbán who have a favorable attitude toward his leadership, and so they have basically bought up all that was left of the independent media, and that's in the middle of the European Union. It just gives this idea that things are going in the wrong direction in a lot of places.

DEVIN STEWART: I think maybe we should conclude by asking what's at stake here. There was a recent fantastic podcast by the Hidden Brain podcast—I don't know if you follow this one; it's a very good series—looking at the consequences of what happens when a small-town newspaper disappears, looking at the American situation.

By the way, it's important to note in your report that the United States is in the report, it's mentioned in your executive summary, and I think it was zero jailed and zero killed.

ELANA BEISER: No, it is not zero killed, because we had The Capital Gazette murders in June.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. But not government killing, obviously.

ELANA BEISER: No.

DEVIN STEWART: But to talk about the Gazette.

ELANA BEISER: Well, obviously it's a huge stain on the U.S. record of press freedom.

DEVIN STEWART: That was Annapolis, right?

ELANA BEISER: That was in Annapolis on June 28, when someone who had previously been reported on by this—it's a local paper in Annapolis; I don't know how big its circulation is. They had reported many years ago on a criminal harassment case of a guy named Jarrod Ramos, and he in turn had sued the paper for defamation.

His lawsuit was unsuccessful, and then he followed up by threatening the paper over many years. Then, one day in June he showed up with a few weapons, and he killed four journalists and someone who worked on the business side.

DEVIN STEWART: Time magazine included that case with the Philippines, Vietnam, I think China was in there as well, and Turkey. Is that an appropriate grouping, do you think? They all seem quite different to me. What are they saying there at Time? I'm putting you on the spot.

ELANA BEISER: You'll have to ask Time exactly what they're saying. I think it's worth recognizing, actually, what the people at Capital Gazette are emblematic of. It's not necessarily press freedom in the United States but press freedom globally.

Like I was saying earlier, the people who get in trouble are often just the people reporting on their own local communities. This was a guy, the alleged killer, who had been accused of harassing someone he knew from his high school class in Annapolis, I believe. It all took place right there. So I do think they're emblematic of the wider problem.

I will say in the United States the alleged perpetrator is in custody. He is slated to go on trial in June, and we're hopeful that there will not be impunity in this case, and that is one thing that sets the United States apart from just about every one of those other places.

DEVIN STEWART: That we have a justice system, that we go after people who commit crimes.

ELANA BEISER: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: That generally, if you are a journalist in the United States, you're probably safe at least from government harassment probably, political harassment. It depends on how you define harassment.

ELANA BEISER: Yes. I don't think that there is necessarily a level of official harassment that we see in other places, but we have been trying to talk more and more with local communities in the Unites States. CPJ in the past has been a very globally focused organized based in New York. But like many people in groups, I think we took First Amendment protections and journalist safety in the United States largely for granted. We're asking questions about that now.

We started actually in I believe 2013. We did a special report on the Obama administration and how the Obama administration kept such tight control of its message and also aggressively prosecuted leakers of information and caught some journalists up. There were I believe eight prosecutions under the Espionage Act under Obama, which was more than all previous presidents combined, and we feel like that could have a chilling effect in terms of information flowing to the public.

The Trump administration has also aggressively pursued leakers. But one distinction obviously is that Obama at least frequently made statements in support of journalists and freedom of the press both at home and abroad, and what we see happening now is the opposite. We see no one standing up for journalists abroad, and domestically we see verbal attacks on journalists instead.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to what's at stake here, I'm just curious: What do you think is causing that lack of rhetoric or leadership on protecting journalists worldwide? Is there a cause?

ELANA BEISER: That's a tough question. I'm not an EU expert, but I do think there was a point at which Turkey was interested in joining the European Union and was feeling some pressure from the European Union about their human rights within the country, and then everything there has changed for the last few years—the EU financial crisis; the migration crisis, for which the European Union needs Turkey's help; with the financial crisis, maybe the European Union is not such an appealing place for Turkey to go anymore; and now the European Union is consumed with Brexit. I do think there was a conduit there for some pressure that has disappeared. So that's one reason Turkey is able to continue throwing journalists in jail.

But I don't know. The global picture is so complex.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's conclude with what's at stake. The Hidden Brain episode I mentioned earlier, they looked at what happens when a newspaper disappears in a town or city, and what they found is essentially the costs of borrowing goes up, and that's reflected in interest rates, which is a reflection of basically waste and government corruption, and a lack of accountability and a lack of a watchdog. That's just in the United States alone.

You're doing important work with your Committee. You obviously probably joined it for emotional reasons as well as everyone has to have a job, right? But you have some input into what you're doing for a living. What drives you? What keeps you going in terms of fighting for journalism?

ELANA BEISER: It's on a couple of different levels. One, there's a certain privilege working at CPJ that we get to meet some of these journalists on the frontline in fairly obscure places, and it's very rewarding to do so. It can also be the opposite of rewarding, when we meet them in person during an attempt to get them away from a dangerous situation. Maybe they'll spend some time in the United States on a fellowship or something. We've had instances where we meet these amazing people, and then they go back to their country, and the worst thing happens, and they've gotten killed. Javier Cárdenas in Mexico was an example of this.

So there's that personal note. But it's really more about the flow of information. I think people who go into journalism often talk about it being a calling to do public service, and I think that working in freedom of the press is trying to do a public service for the public service. It's just a different layer of the same thing.

I think it's very important when you talk about freedom of the press to emphasize that we're not talking about journalists' rights necessarily. We're not trying to say that journalists have rights that other civilians don't have. It's just that if the journalists do not have the right and the ability to do their work everybody suffers.

It's like you say in the United States maybe it's corruption or government waste. In a more volatile country in Africa or someplace, maybe it's more violence or worse poverty. Who knows? But without that information flowing from the journalists, we can't say.

DEVIN STEWART: Elana Beiser is editorial director at the Committee to Protect Journalists here in New York City. It has been great to speak with you today. Thank you.

ELANA BEISER: Thank you very much.

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