ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — More journalists than ever are languishing in prisons across the world as countries like Turkey, Iran and China step up terror and other anti-state charges to silence critical press, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.
The group said it identified 232 writers, editors, and photojournalists behind bars as of Dec. 1, an increase of 53 from 2011 figures and a record number since the group began counting in 1990.
"We are living in an age when anti-state charges and `terrorist' labels have become the preferred means that governments use to intimidate, detain, and imprison journalists," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement.
"Criminalizing probing coverage of inconvenient topics violates not only international law, but impedes the right of people around the world to gather, disseminate, and receive independent information," Simon said.
Turkey currently holds more journalists – 49 – than any other country, the group said. Dozens of those imprisoned are Kurdish reporters and editors held on terror-related charges and anti-government plots.
The watchdog said broadly worded anti-terror and penal code statutes allow Turkish authorities "to conflate the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity."
Iran is the second-worst jailer, with 45 journalists behind bars, the watchdog said. China is the third worst. The ruling Communist Party made "extensive use of anti-state charges to jail online writers expressing dissident political views and journalists covering ethnic minority groups." Nineteen of the 32 journalists held in China are from the Muslim Uighur minority and ethnic Tibetan groups.
The Red Sea nation of Eritrea, which faces multiple U.N.-imposed sanctions over allegations it supports al-Qaida-linked militants in neighboring Somalia, holds 28 journalists in jail, the group said. None of the journalists have ever been publicly charged or appeared before court, it said. Syria, where a bloody civil war has been ravaging for months, holds 15 journalists in jail.
Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan complete the top 10 countries holding the most journalists behind bars. One journalist behind bars in Ethiopia is Eskinder Nega, who was named a winner of PEN America's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in May. He was convicted on terror charges.
The Committee to Project Journalists also highlighted an improvement in Myanmar, which over the last year has pardoned a dozen journalists.