First Person

How to set a journalist free from jail

December 15, 2015

In its new report, released today, the Committee to Protect Journalists tallies the number of journalists imprisoned around the world. It’s not a pretty picture. China is jailing 49 journalists, the highest number ever recorded in that country. Egypt is in second place with 23, and the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey has doubled since last year and now stands at 14. Nineteen journalists are jailed in Iran, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has spent more than 500 days behind bars.

But if you dig down past the grim numbers there are also some encouraging trends. With 199 imprisoned journalists, the total is down slightly from record levels of the last few years. There isn’t a single journalist imprisoned anywhere in the Americas, from Canada to Chile and including Cuba. Intense advocacy has brought the release of imprisoned journalists in key countries, among them Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

In fact, the data shows a clear path forward in the fight to reduce the number of imprisoned journalists. Only the critical factor isn’t the newsrooms where these journalists reside, or the advocacy organizations and anxious families trying to free them. What is the key to success? Concerted and sustained engagement from the US government.

Here’s why. The data shows that the systematic incarceration of journalists is a practice employed by only a handful of repressive countries. There may be 28 countries on CPJ’s imprisoned list, but more than 60 percent of all journalists are being held in just five of them. So the group of countries to target is much smaller than it appears.

The worst abuses often occur in countries where the US has limited influence—China, Iran, and Eritrea. But many countries on CPJ’s imprisoned list are US allies or places where the US has significant leverage. Places like Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. Because there are strategic and commercial interests at stake in these countries, the US has been unwilling to apply the necessary pressure to get the job done.

That needs to change, and it’s in the best interest of the United States that it does. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both defended press freedom and keep that right high on the US foreign policy agenda. Last year, to mark World Press Freedom Day, President Obama hosted persecuted journalists from Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Russia at the White House. As part of its annual #FreethePress campaign, US officials around the world highlighted selected cases. (I was a panelist at an event at the UN mission hosted by Ambassador Samantha Power.)

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When the US puts pressure on, it can make a difference. Two Vietnamese bloggers were released from prison during the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade agreement. Six journalists and bloggers were freed from Ethiopian jails in advance of President Obama’s visit last July. (Sadly, many of these freed journalists have been forced into exile.) In both instances, the specific cases were raised directly by US officials.

But the US approach has been inconsistent. In the case of key US allies such as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, pressure has been muted by security considerations, as all are seen as essential to stability in the Middle East.

But a more assertive and consistent approach would actually both improve security in these countries and advance US strategic interests. Why? Because the jailing of critical journalists creates an information vacuum that complicates the security environment, fuels conflict, and makes decision-making difficult. In places where journalists are under threat—from Southeastern Turkey to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula—crucial information has dried up.

Freedom of the press is unmistakably a core value in the United States and a defining feature of our political culture. But we’re inconsistent in standing for this principle around the world. And in approaching this essential right, the emphasis must be squarely on freedom of expression, not its important corollary, “Internet Freedom.” The US government’s emphasis on freedom on the net is viewed in parts of the world as a self-serving strategy to advance US commercial interests and assert “information hegemony,” to borrow the Chinese term.

Each country is different, and the pressure that the US can apply varies depending on relationships and shared interests between countries. Sometimes public statements are most effective. At other times, a behind-the-scenes approach works best. Either way, the message must be unequivocal: jailing journalists is a red line that cannot be crossed without serious, painful consequences. Countries that don’t listen are undermining their own interests and risking the benefits of being in the United States’ good graces.

The US has an additional reason to champion the cause of imprisoned journalists: It bears some responsibility for today’s bleak climate. A look at the data explains why. At the end of 2000, there were 81 journalists jailed around the world. Then came the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As repressive governments adopted the rhetoric of the US-led war on terror, the number of journalists imprisoned surged to 118 by the end of 2001, and 139 the following year. Since then, the trend has been upward.

Many journalists in prison today are jailed on anti-terror charges. Through sustained and systematic pressure, the US can reverse the power dynamic, helping to win the release of journalists who languish in jail today for no greater crime than reporting the news.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.