The recent release of Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste from custody in Egypt, has focused attention once again on the large numbers of reporters, editors and other journalists who are subjected to unlawful imprisonment around the world. Greste was detained in 2013, accused of damaging Egypt’s reputation with his reporting, and sentenced by a court in June 2014. His arrest was carried out by a dictatorial regime that came to power in a military coup in July 2013, and which only earlier this week, confirmed a mass death sentence against 180 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt is by no means an exception. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) collects information on journalists who have been illegally imprisoned, and its figures for 2014 show that over 220 journalists were in detention during the year. This is almost certainly an underestimation of the real figure, given that the most repressive regimes do their best to cover up such practices.
In some of the cases reported below, a legal justification has been sought by the authorities for the detention of the journalists. This often has nothing to do with the reality of what actually happened, or is made possible thanks to authoritarian laws that prevent reporting critical of the state or its actions. In other cases, however, some journalists have been detained for long periods of time without any charges whatsoever. The following list includes 12 separate cases of journalists being wrongfully imprisoned while trying to do their job.
12 Eritrean Press Ban
In September 2001, the Eritrean government moved without warning to ban all independent media outlets, following growing criticism of the president. In the course of this move, a number of journalists were detained without charge and disappeared into custody. To this day, the authorities have refused to confirm the whereabouts or status of these individuals. Reports suggest that at least one of the journalists subsequently died in jail, while others have been hospitalized due to torture and mistreatment. The elimination of the private press has not stopped the authorities from targeting government-owned outlets, with arrests of journalists continuing to be a regular occurrence, as shown by the example of Nibiel Idris, detained in February 2011, also without charge.
11 Yang Tongyan (Tianshui)
Yang, who is better known by his pen name Tianshui, was sentenced in 2006, to 12 years behind bars for his critical reporting on the Chinese state and the Communist Party. Authorities alleged that these writings amounted to attempted state subversion. Tianshui contributed to online publications that were banned by Beijing’s strict internet censorship regulations. Amnesty International has drawn attention to his case, pointing out that he has been treated poorly in prison for several health conditions. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, he has spent most of his time in prison, having served a previous sentence of ten years for his criticisms over the government’s killing of protesters.
10 Memetjan Abdulla
Head of China’s state-run Uighur language broadcaster, Abdulla was arrested in 2009, as part of a broad crackdown by Beijing against protesters in the Uighur region of western China. He was accused of having incited violence with postings he made on a news blog he ran alongside his main duties. Reports indicate that he has been sentenced to life imprisonment with no prospect of release. It is known that he is detained in a prison somewhere in the region, but his exact location remains a mystery.
9 Abduljalil al-Singace
During mass protests against the authoritarian regime in Bahrain in 2011, Dr Abduljalil al -Singace, a prominent opposition activist, blogger and academic, was detained and sentenced to life imprisonment for protesting against the government. Since being imprisoned, reports indicate that he has been repeatedly tortured and is suffering from severe health problems as a result. In September last year, a campaign group, Pen International, urged his immediate release to enable him to receive urgent medical attention, and for his abuse in prison to be fully investigated. al-Singace was only one of a large number of opposition figures arrested during the clampdown in 2011, which was supported by military personnel from Saudi Arabia.
8 Eskinder Nega
A well-known columnist in Ethiopia critical of the government, Nega was arrested by state security forces in September 2011, and accused of involvement in a terrorist plot. No concrete evidence was presented, but he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He wrote critical pieces against the actions of the government, and was previously a leading figure at several anti-government newspapers that were shut down. His attempt to appeal the sentencing decision has repeatedly been delayed, meaning that he is yet to be granted the chance to defend himself in court. Nega is no stranger to the authorities, having been previously jailed for over a year following his coverage of anti-government protests that broke out in Ethiopia in 2005.
7 Avaz Zeynalli
The editor of a newspaper in Azerbaijan, Zeynalli was arrested in October 2011 and accused of extortion. Allegedly, Zeynalli threatened a member of parliament that he would publish damaging revelations about her in his newspaper if she did not pay him a large bribe. However, Zeynalli has declared that he was in fact asked to support the government in his newspaper in exchange for money, and that when he refused he was detained. After being held in investigative detention for several months, he was sentenced to nine years in jail in early 2012 for extortion and tax evasion.
6 Christopher Faraone
Proving that attacks on journalists are not confined to countries considered less developed, Faraone was arrested, beaten and illegally detained by the New York police while covering a protest to mark the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Faraone reported that even though he clearly displayed his camera and notepad to officers, he was attacked and badly injured, before being held without the ability to consult with a lawyer. He was intimidated and warned to cease reporting on the demonstrations. The police then sought to press charges against him for disorderly conduct, but this was thrown out in the courts due to lack of evidence. After his release, Faraone sued the New York police for damages due to the injuries caused to him, unlawful detention, unlawful imprisonment and the breach of his constitutional rights.
5 Mahmoud Abdel Nabi
Nabi was detained by Egyptian authorities on July 3rd, 2013, the day on which the military seized power from democratically elected President Mohammed Mursi. Nabi had been covering clashes which resulted in several deaths and was accused of having incited the violence. As well as bringing about a wave of mass repression of protesters, including hundreds of deaths, the new regime pursued a number of local and international journalists over subsequent weeks. Nabi’s trial was still on-going at the end of 2014.
4 Abdelhai Abdessamia
Algerian authorities have held Abdessamia for over a year without bringing any formal charges against him. Initially, he was accused of smuggling immigrants on the basis that he had helped the editor of his newspaper, Mon Journal, leave the country in what the government considered to be an illegal manner. But a judge ruled that this charge should be dropped last April. His colleagues and family suspect that the state is attempting to persecute him after his newspaper reported on the deteriorating health of the president in 2013. Mon Journal’s owner has been separately charged with a number of offences, including the “endangering of state security, national unity, stability and proper functioning of institutions.”
3 Mohamed Fahmy
An Al Jazeera journalist with joint Canadian and Egyptian citizenship, Fahmy was detained along with Peter Greste in late 2013, and has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment by the authorities. Following Greste’s release, rumors have been circulating that Fahmy could be set free soon, due to diplomatic pressure exerted on Cairo, but at time of writing this remains unclear. Indicating that he intends to leave Egypt when released, reports recently stated that he had given up his Egyptian citizenship. Fahmy was the head of Al Jazeera english in Egypt, and had also worked for international news agencies such as CNN.
2 Burmese Unity Journalists
While Burma has received coverage in the western press recently for its increased openness, it is by no means a place where freedom of speech for journalists is guaranteed. A group of journalists with the publication Unity were detained on February 1st, 2014 and charged with offences against the state. Their alleged crime related to a report published on the possible production of chemical weapons by the government. They were convicted by a court under a long-standing national secrets law and sentenced to ten years imprisonment with hard labor. Although the sentence was cut to seven years on appeal, a further court ruling rejected the journalists’ attempt to have their names cleared of any wrongdoing.
1 Aziz Kayed
Kayed was a leading figure at the Al Aqsa television network run in the West Bank by Palestinian group Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organisation. Kayed was questioned and detained by the Israeli army after they raided his house in June 2014. He is yet to be charged with committing any crime, but continues to be held in preventive detention. Under Israeli law, a military court can authorize such detention for up to six months and extend it for as long as is required. Kayed’s detention occurred just days before Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, killing over 2,000 Palestinian civilians. Many suspect that the move against the journalist was an attempt to prevent the broadcaster from covering Israeli human rights violations.