THE BLOG
02/02/2014 07:50 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2014

Jailed For Asking Who, What, Where and Why

Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

Forty in Turkey. Thirty five in Iran. Thirty two in China. Two in Russia. One in the United States.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), those numbers represent only some of the imprisoned journalists in 2013. One hundred and one more of their peers are behind bars in 30 other countries, bringing the count to 211. In the same year, Reporters Without Borders counts 178 journalists and 164 "netizans" (mostly bloggers) jailed. Regardless of whose numbers are quoted, this census of captivity is a daunting reminder of the global use of legally mandated censorship. Often, loosely defined laws against those boogieman buzzwords like "terrorism" or "extremism" are used as court forged broadaxes to cut down those who question, investigate or simply write about the government under which they live. And of course, for every journalist or media worker behind bars, there are countless others "guilty" of daring to ask a question or speak their mind.

Unfortunately, 2014 shows no end to the impunity that persists in silencing those already locked up while adding more media workers to the rolls of the world's jails. Just last week while acquitting a group of 60 accused opposition members that included at least one journalist, the Egyptian government continues to hold at least 20 media workers including three foreign correspondents. In Iran, the jailing of any journalist who does not follow the rules of the Ministry of Culture continues at an alarming rate. China, recently admonished by the White House for expelling several foreign reporters, continues to hold dozens of local reporters using an "anti-state" law to keep them locked away while revoking or refusing to renew the visas of foreign correspondents.

Free speech, as Americans learn in history lessons, is a cornerstone of democracy as defined by the Constitution. Hence it is a pillar of our civil society to have a free and active press. Yet a chilling threat of censorship exists here in the States that is potentially no less drastic than that described in the likes of Russia, China and Iran. Recently, the head of the NSA James Clapper essentially accused any journalist reporting on data collection and phone tapping as being an accomplice to terrorism. Veteran reporter James Risen continues to fight at the highest levels of American courts to protect his constitutional right to keep the confidence of a source in reporting stories key to our National interest. Last year, CPJ commissioned a study on the Obama administration's relationship with the press. Its findings were damning and frightening. As James Risen says about his own case:

This case has been transformed into a potential constitutional showdown over the First Amendment and the role of the press in the United States because of the Obama Administration's aggressive use of the powers of the government to try to rein in independent national security reporting... I am appealing to the Supreme Court because it is too dangerous to allow the government to conduct national security policy completely in the dark.

Under-reported in the mainstream media, the case of Barrett Brown is perhaps the most current and chilling harbinger of censorship within our own borders. He has been in solitary confinement for over one year, and faces over one hundred more for the alleged crime of linking to leaked material in a report about a hacking case. The drastic measures being taken against him for virtually one hyperlink rivals the despotic behavior of countries we decry as barbaric. Legal action, wielded in the name of state security and widely termed as "anti-terrorist" is the most potent threat faced by American journalists on home soil. And the threat, while immediate to the reporter, is really a greater threat to reporting and by extension to the very civic order by which we make our daily choices in a democratic society. When a revered mainstream reporter like Risen and an upstart investigator like Brown face the walls of a cell, other journalists take note and self-censor. Self-censorship, as outlined by The Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, includes this telling statement:

Journalists practice self-censorship because they are fearful of what could happen if they publish certain information -- they are fearful of injury to themselves or their families, fearful of a lawsuit or other economic consequence.

Even the Olympics are not immune to systematic legal censorship. The city of Sochi is in the Caucasus region of Russia. Two Norwegian reporters were recently detained by Russian authorities, as was an American journalist; all were subsequently kicked out of the country. Many more local journalists have been silenced as well. As Alice Speri reports recently for Al Jazeera America:

Self-censorship is widespread in Sochi, particularly since media organizations depend on public subsidies and official permits to operate, the report detailed. "Nobody calls me. Nobody says to me what I should or should not write about. But I know what the topics that anger the authorities are. -- Svetlana Sagradova, editor of a local magazine who said she practices self-censorship for fear of losing her license. I don't want any problems, and this is why I don't publish much.

The directive to "stop spoiling the country's image," may be unspoken but is clear, said another journalist who was removed from the Sochi beat after her critical stories.

It is the journalists who bear the brunt of the psychological, financial and physical weight of the gavel, but it is society that ultimately slips a bit further down an eroding slope toward tyranny. We should not be allowing our elected officials and lawmakers to define who or what journalism is, we should be demanding that they protect journalism and allow the press to remain free.