Amidst a months-long war, Israel emerged for the first time as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, with 17 recorded behind bars as of December 1, 2023, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) annual prison census.
This is the highest number of Palestinian journalists in detention since CPJ began documenting arrests in 1992 and the first time that Israel has ranked in sixth place on the census. The ranking comes as more than 80 journalists have been killed since the Israel-Gaza war began on October 7.
Globally, 320 journalists were imprisoned in connection with their work on December 1, 2023, the second highest recorded since CPJ started recording this data. The previous record was set in 2022, when more than 360 appeared in CPJ’s database. In 2023, the top three jailers of journalists—China (44 behind bars), Myanmar (43), and Belarus (28)—held more than a third (35.8%) of those incarcerated on the day of the census. Russia (22) and Vietnam (19) rounded out the top five jailers of journalists.
“Our research shows how entrenched authoritarianism is globally, with governments emboldened to stamp out critical reporting and prevent public accountability. Meanwhile, Israel’s standing in CPJ’s 2023 prison census is evidence that a fundamental democratic norm—press freedom—is fraying as Israel exploits draconian methods to silence Palestinian journalists. This practice must stop,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CPJ’s chief executive officer.
Israel’s unprecedented ranking was driven by its practice of administrative detention in the occupied West Bank, a type of incarceration that allows a military commander to detain someone without charge—and extend their detention an unlimited number of times—on grounds of preventing them from committing a future offense. Administrative detention has peaked amid the ongoing conflict, with thousands of Palestinians in detention.
In a world where journalists are routinely vilified by political leaders, the majority of the journalists listed in the census face anti-state charges, such as false news and terrorism in retaliation for their critical coverage. More than 60 journalists around the world were being held without having any charge disclosed. Prolonged pretrial detentions and cruel treatment are common, while some governments, such as Russia and Ethiopia, have even persecuted journalists across borders. In Vietnam, Egypt, and other countries, even after their release, journalists continue to face travel bans, other movement restrictions, and measures that effectively curtail their freedom.
“Across the world, we have reached a critical moment. We need to see an end to the weaponization of laws that silence reporting and ensure journalists are free to report. During a banner election year, with billions headed to the polls across the world, anything less is a disservice to democracy and harms us all,” said Ginsberg.
Asia remains the region with the highest number of journalists in jail, per the 2023 prison census. In addition to the leading jailers—China, Myanmar, and Vietnam—journalists were also behind bars in India, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. India’s April 2024 election can be expected to be a test for press freedom in a country where anti-terror charges, dangerous legislation, and routine raids of newsrooms have become the norm.
Pervasive censorship in China, which has ranked as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists for years, makes it notoriously difficult to determine the exact number of journalists jailed there. Nonetheless, the country continues to exert its censorship regime with arrests in Hong Kong following Beijing’s harsh national security law amid mass pro-democracy protests. Jimmy Lai, founder of the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, endured nearly 1,100 days behind bars before his trial on foreign collusion charges, which is ongoing, finally began.
In Europe and Central Asia, Belarus and Russia—allies in Moscow’s full-blown war against Ukraine—hold a disproportionate number of journalists behind bars. Belarusian authorities have increasingly jailed journalists for their work since 2020, following mass protests over the disputed reelection of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Over 70% of journalists in Belarus face anti-state charges, with almost half serving sentences of five years or more.
Russia has become adept at jailing foreign reporters, with 12 of the 17 imprisoned foreign-national journalists held globally detained by Russia, including Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva, both U.S. citizens held in pre-trial detention. Moscow’s transnational repression also included a spate of arrest warrants for Russian journalists living in other countries.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of journalists jailed on December 1 rose to 47 from 31 in 2022, with Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Cameroon ranking as the three worst jailers in the region. Those held in Eritrea include some of the longest-known cases of journalists imprisoned around the world, none of whom have ever been charged. Ethiopia, which forced the return of a journalist exiled in Djibouti to face terrorism charges, held eight journalists as of December 1, as press freedom challenges linger despite a 2022 peace agreement that ended two years of civil war.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Iran’s numbers saw a sharp decline from its 2022 designation as the worst jailer of journalists following its clampdown on coverage of nationwide women-led protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Many of the 62 journalists listed on the 2022 census have since been released on bail to await charges or sentencing, underscoring Iran’s continued repression of the media.
Egypt, routinely among the world’s worst jailers, was tied with Turkey for the eighth-highest number of jailed journalists globally—13—in the 2023 census. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iraqi Kurdistan have all expanded the use of false news, terrorism, and anti-state charges against journalists in recent years.
While few journalists were jailed in Latin America and the Caribbean on the census date—one each in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba respectively—threats to the media continue to undermine press freedom. All three countries have a record of journalists being forced into exile, including a mass deportation from Nicaragua.
In Guatemala, José Rubén Zamora remains in prison even after a court overturned his June 2023 conviction on money laundering and ordered a retrial, scheduled for February 2024. Zamora has been forced to change lawyers eight times since being jailed in July 2022, experiencing solitary confinement and mistreatment throughout his imprisonment.
To address the challenges, CPJ provides journalists with financial support to cover the cost of legal fees, as well as resources intended to help journalists and newsrooms better prepare for or mitigate threats of legal harassment and action. The organization also makes concerted efforts to advocate for the release of journalists like those previously mentioned, whose cases could revert or stem the tide of criminalization.
About the Committee to Protect Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. We defend the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal.
CPJ’s report is available on cpj.org in Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, English, Kurdish, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian.
CPJ’s prison census is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on December 1, 2023. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year; accounts of those cases can be found at http://cpj.org. CPJ’s data includes detailed information about each imprisoned journalist in every country listed, including the circumstances around their jailing, legal proceedings, and advocacy around each particular case.
Media contact: [email protected]