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CAPSULE REPORT: Majority of African journalists are detained without charge, says CPJ

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 4 December 2008 CPJ press release:

More than two-thirds of African journalists detained without charge

New York, December 4, 2008 - A total of 23 journalists remained jailed in connection with their work in Sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds held without charge, according to an annual report released today by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thirteen journalists were held in Eritrea, which was the fourth jailer of journalists worldwide behind China, Cuba and Burma. The survey found more Internet journalists jailed worldwide today than journalists working in any other medium.

CPJ's survey found 125 journalists in all behind bars on December 1, a decrease of two from the 2007 tally. China continued to be world's worst jailer of journalists, a dishonor it has held for 10 consecutive years. Cuba, Burma, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan round out the top five jailers from among the 29 nations that imprison journalists. Each of the top five nations has persistently placed among the world's worst in detaining journalists.

Eritrea's secret prisons held but four of at least 17 journalists worldwide held in secret locations. Eritrean authorities have refused to disclose the whereabouts, legal status, or health of any of the journalists they have been detaining for several years. Unconfirmed reports have suggested the deaths of at least three of these journalists while in custody, but the government has refused to even say whether the detainees are alive or dead.

Two other Eritrean journalists were being held in secret in neighboring Ethiopia, while the government of The Gambia has declined to provide information on the July 2006 arrest of journalist "Chief" Ebrima Manneh. Many international observers, from the U.S. Senate to the West African human rights court, have called on authorities to free Manneh, who was jailed for trying to publish a report critical of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.

About 13 percent of jailed journalists worldwide, including those imprisoned in Eritrea, Ethiopia and The Gambia, face no formal charge at all. Countries as diverse as Israel, Iran, the United States, and Uzbekistan also used this tactic of open-ended detention without due process. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 16 out of 23 journalists were behind bars without charge.

Anti-state allegations such as subversion, divulging state secrets, and acting against national interests are the most common charge used to imprison journalists worldwide, CPJ found. About 59 percent of journalists in the census are jailed under these charges, many of them by the Chinese and Cuban governments, but also by countries like Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast.

The survey found that 45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors. Online journalists represent the largest professional category for the first time in CPJ's prison census. At least 56 online journalists are jailed worldwide, according to CPJ's census, a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.

This trend applied in Sub-Saharan Africa where at least one online journalist remained imprisoned as of December 1, 2008.

"Online journalism has started to change the media landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa and eased access to communication," said CPJ's Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. "But some governments have reacted adversely to this trend and a growing pattern of harassment of online journalists has developed."

The number of imprisoned online journalists has steadily increased since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. Print reporters, editors, and photographers make up the next largest professional category, with 53 cases in 2008. Television and radio journalists and documentary filmmakers constitute the rest.

"Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack."

In October, CPJ joined with Internet companies, investors, and human rights groups to combat government repression of online expression. After two years of negotiations, this diverse group announced the creation of the Global Network Initiative, which establishes guidelines enabling Internet and telecommunications companies to protect free expression and privacy online. Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have joined the initiative.

Illustrating the evolving media landscape, the increase in online-related jailings has been accompanied by a rise in imprisonments of freelance journalists. Forty-five of the journalists on CPJ's census are freelancers; most of them work online. These freelancers are not employees of media companies and often do not have the legal resources or political connections that might help them gain their freedom. The number of imprisoned freelancers has risen more than 40 percent in the last two years, according to CPJ research.

"The image of the solitary blogger working at home in pajamas may be appealing, but when the knock comes on the door they are alone and vulnerable," said CPJ's Simon. "All of us must stand up for their rights - from Internet companies to journalists and press freedom groups. The future of journalism is online and we are now in a battle with the enemies of press freedom who are using imprisonment to define the limits of public discourse."

Nowhere is the ascendance of Internet journalism more evident than in China, where 24 of 28 jailed journalists worked online. China's prison list includes Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist and blogger, who is serving a prison term of three and a half years for online commentaries and media interviews in which he criticized the Communist Party. He was convicted of "incitement to subvert state power," a charge commonly used by authorities in China to jail critical writers. At least 22 journalists are jailed in China on this and other vague antistate charges.

To read the full report, see: http://tinyurl.com/5dxvt9

CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit www.cpj.org.

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