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A record number of journalists are behind bars

For the second year in a row, the number of journalists who are imprisoned has reached a historic high, according to a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At a total of 260 people, CPJ’s Editorial Director Elana Beiser says that it’s a global crisis for the freedom of the press. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Beiser for more insight.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    As we near the end of the year there are record number of journalists behind bars around the world. The current total is 260. That’s a bit more than last year according to the annual survey taken by the Committee to Protect Journalists. For some insight. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Elana Beiser the editorial director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what’s going on? Why is it that a record number?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    Well it is as you mentioned only slightly higher than last year and that’s because the top three jailer countries are exactly the same as they were last year – Turkey, China and Egypt. And we think a big part of this is because those three countries are not really paying any kind of price. They’re not really feeling any pressure. They jailed all these journalist last year. They got away with it and they don’t feel any incentive to curb this behavior.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In Turkey there was some political upheaval last year there was a mere coup attempt. So you can kind of understand why it’s happening that the administration wants to push back against people who doesn’t agree with it. What about China and Egypt?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    Well Egypt is a little bit experiencing a similar thing and that there’s been a lot of political upheaval in the last few years. Now el-Sisi has now been in power for a few years but many of the journalists there in Egypt have been in jails dating back to 2013 when there was that change of power. And in China it’s just a consistent jailer with very tight control, very tight censorship over the news media.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What’s the most consistent charge that these journalists are accused of?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    There are all three quarters of them are facing anti-state charges so a lot of time those are terror laws. Sometimes there are state secrets and espionage but a full three quarters of them are facing that kind of charge.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What kind of due process – if any? How do these countries carry this out?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    It does vary country by country. So in Turkey you at least see these trials even though they’re sort of sham trials and the evidence is very flimsy. You do see them moving forward and journalists being convicted on these anti-terror charges and sentence in Egypt a surprising number I believe more than half of the 20 journalists jailed there have not even been convicted or sentenced to a crime. So some of them have been in jail for four years without trial.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well what’s the role of the the home countries? Sometimes there are foreign journalists that are working overseas. You know when we see German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet with the head of state sometimes it’s an awkward kind of press conference with that head of state. Are these countries advocating for the release of the journalists?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    Certainly Angela Merkel has been very vocal because there’s one journalist in Turkey who has a German-Turkish citizen who was working for a German newspaper and she and other German officials have been very vocal in calling for his release in particular but more broadly certainly the Trump administration and to some extent EU leaders have not pushed as hard as they can. You know obviously you’ve see leaders going to China all the time looking for for trade deals and you don’t hear them necessarily raising publicly issues of human rights such as freedom of the press.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So it does that end up having an impact? Does that end up making a difference that are kind of geo-political needs end up coming in front of the lives and the careers of these journalists?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    I think it does. I mean we can point to instances in the past for example under Obama where he traveled and you know around his trips to Ethiopia and Vietnam officials, put some pressure on those governments to release journalists in jail and it was effective. And we don’t see that kind of pressure happening now under this administration.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what’s the long term consequence? Because a lot of these as you point out in your survey, a lot of these are local journalists, these are nationally prominent journalists with huge Twitter followings. These are people kind of on the front lines trying to cover the news.

  • ELANA BEISER:

    That’s right. But I think there are a very wide ranging consequences because even though these are local journalists in fact, 97 percent of them are. The local journalists are the ones who ferret out the news stories that are eventually covered by the international press that you and I you know rely on for our international news. So it’s not just a matter of you know local stories that aren’t getting covered locally which obviously is to the detriment of those populations. But these days news like all other goods and services you know travel across borders and we need that news to flow freely.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the rise of a actual fake news and also be kind of a labeling of fake news by countries. How does that play into this?

  • ELANA BEISER:

    It’s extremely complex. The number of journalists that are in jail on a legal charge – it’s usually called false news rather than fake news – is still modest. It’s 21 out of 262 in this year surveyor are under those kind of false news charges. But that’s actually more than double what it was last year. It’s the highest number we’ve ever seen. And you know it’s impossible to show cause and effect but certainly it comes in the context of all of this discussion fake news.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Elana Beiser from the Committee to Protect Journalists thanks so much for joining us.

  • ELANA BEISER:

    Thank you for having me.

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