488 journalists in arbitrary detention, highest ever recorded

A record high number of journalists were imprisoned in 2021, according to Reporters Without Borders.

A 2011 display by Reporters Without Borders showing reporters have been held hostage for over 500 days (photo credit: Leo Gonzales/Flickr)
A 2011 display by Reporters Without Borders showing reporters have been held hostage for over 500 days
(photo credit: Leo Gonzales/Flickr)

Some 488 journalists and media workers were imprisoned in connection with their work as of mid-December 2021, Reporters Without Borders reported on Thursday, the highest number the organization has ever recorded since it began publishing figures on the matter in 1995.

The figure marks a 20% increase compared to last year.

Three countries were central to the spike in arbitrary detention of journalists this year: Myanmar, where the military retook power in a coup and cracked down on protests; Belarus, which has cracked down on protests in the aftermath of Alexander Lukashenko's disputed reelection; and China, which has cracked down on freedom of the press in Hong Kong.

RSF (French acronym for Reporters Sans Frontières) also recorded a record high of female journalists in prison, with 60 detained as of mid-December, 33% more than were detained at this time last year. Three-fourths are being held in those three countries: 19 in China, 17 in Belarus and nine in Myanmar.

“The extremely high number of journalists in arbitrary detention is the work of three dictatorial regimes,” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire in the organization's 2021 Round-Up. “It is a reflection of the reinforcement of dictatorial power worldwide, an accumulation of crises, and the lack of any scruples on the part of these regimes. It may also be the result of new geopolitical power relationships in which authoritarian regimes are not being subjected to enough pressure to curb their crackdowns.”

 Paramedics and journalists during clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian demonstrators protesting against Israeli settlements, near Tubas in the West Bank July 27, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA) Paramedics and journalists during clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian demonstrators protesting against Israeli settlements, near Tubas in the West Bank July 27, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/RANEEN SAWAFTA)

On a somewhat brighter note, 2021 had the lowest number of journalists killed in connection with their work since 2003, with 46 deaths recorded between January 1 to December 1. The last time the death toll was fewer than 50 was in 2003.

According to RSF, the decline in journalists killed is largely due to a decline in the intensity of the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to campaigning by press freedom organizations for mechanisms meant to protect journalists.

Despite the decline, an average of nearly one journalist a week is still being killed in connection with their work. Two-thirds of those killed this year were deliberately targeted. Mexico and Afghanistan were the deadliest countries for journalists, with seven killed in Mexico and six in Afghanistan.

Some 61% of journalists killed this year died outside of war zones.

Additionally, as of mid-December, 65 journalists and media workers were being held hostage around the world. All of them were abducted in either Syria, Iraq or Yemen, except for Olivier Dubois, who was abducted in Mali.

The RSF 2021 Round-Up pointed to a number of noteworthy cases, as well, including Jimmy Lai, who celebrated his 74th birthday in a Hong Kong prison, making him one of the world's oldest imprisoned journalists.

In Iran, Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and human rights activist who had already spent eight years in jail, was returned to prison in November, bringing to three the total number of female journalists detained in Iran.

The Round-Up also pointed to Zhang Zhan, imprisoned in China, as the journalist in greatest danger of dying in prison. In late October, she weighed only 88 lb (40 kg) and could no longer walk. She has been imprisoned since May 14, 2020.