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Alan D. Miller is editor of The Columbus Dispatch.
A record number of journalists were imprisoned because of their work on your behalf in 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual census.
Others were detained, physically attacked, injured or killed while doing their jobs.
The grim details were released last month, and the CPJ census showed that at least 274 journalists were imprisoned globally as of Dec. 1 as governments clamped down on news coverage of civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.
All were working to find and deliver facts, to bring you the news from around the world.
“It’s shocking and appalling that we are seeing a record number of journalists imprisoned in the midst of a global pandemic,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “This wave of repression is a form of censorship that is disrupting the flow of information and fueling the infodemic. With COVID-19 raging through the world’s prisons, it’s also putting the lives of journalists at risk.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. Its data also show that 29 journalists have been killed in 2020 and 64 are missing globally.
The number of imprisoned journalists is the most since CPJ began collecting data in the early 1990s, and the fifth consecutive year with at least 250 journalists imprisoned. China, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia jailed the most.
While no journalists were jailed in the U.S. at the time the committee conducted its prison census, CPJ said in a release that an unprecedented 110 were arrested or charged in the U.S. in 2020, many while covering demonstrations against police violence, and at least 12 still face charges, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
And 311 journalists have been physically attacked in the U.S. in 2020. They include four in Columbus — three journalists from The Lantern, the Ohio State University newspaper, who were injured when hit with pepper spray fired by police, and one from The Dispatch who was hit in the head with a so-called “knee-knocker” rubber or wooden bullet fired by police in riot gear.
The CPJ tracker is a database of press freedom incidents in the United States, according to the CPJ website. It tracks everything from arrests of journalists and the seizure of their equipment to interrogations at the U.S. border and physical attacks. The tracker documents incidents across the country, involving national, state and local authorities.
The committee concluded that “President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric throughout his term, including calling critical reports ‘fake news,’ gave cover to authoritarians to crack down on journalists in their own countries. Globally, 34 journalists were jailed for ‘false news,’ compared with 31 last year.”
CPJ said it recently provided recommendations to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden for restoring U.S. leadership on press freedom, including appointing a Special Presidential Envoy for Press Freedom to prioritize the issue in foreign policy.
“The record number of journalists imprisoned around the world is President Trump’s press freedom legacy,” Simon said. “The incoming Biden administration must work as part of a global coalition to bring the number down.”
Protests and political tensions were a catalyst for many arrests around the globe.
“Two countries with significant increases in jailed journalists were Ethiopia, where unrest has degenerated into armed conflict, and Belarus, where journalists were detained while covering protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who claimed victory in an election widely seen as fraudulent,” the committee reported.
Amid the pandemic, CPJ said, authoritarian leaders tried to control the narrative by arresting journalists.
“They also delayed trials, restricted visitors, and disregarded the increased health risk in prison; at least two journalists died after contracting the disease in custody,” said CPJ, which documented more than 200 press freedom violations related to COVID-19 and launched a #FreeThePress campaign to call on world leaders to release all imprisoned journalists.
CPJ said that its census is a snapshot of those incarcerated at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2020. It does not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year.
It said that journalists remain on the list “until the organization determines with reasonable certainty that they have been released or have died in custody. CPJ advocacy helped lead to the early release of at least 75 imprisoned journalists worldwide this year.”
As we think about counting our blessings, I will count among them the many journalists who continue daily to bring us the news despite the very real threats of personal harm and imprisonment.
And I give thanks for all of you, our readers, who support local journalism and reporting from around the world by subscribing to your local paper.