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Today the One Free Press Coalition has launched the 23rd monthly “10 Most Urgent” list of press freedom abuses around the world. This month’s theme is, “the year in press freedom,” and the list highlights the wide range of threats faced by journalists throughout 2020.
Since spring 2019, Fortune has copublished this list of the 10 most urgent press freedom cases, assembled by the OFPC in partnership with The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As a member of this coalition, Fortune continues to call for detained journalists to be released due to heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison. While some have been released over the past several months, countless remain in danger.
Meanwhile, the families of many journalists who have been killed for doing their jobs await justice for their loved ones. At least 207 press freedom violations related to the pandemic occurred worldwide in 2020, according to research from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Read last month’s OFPC “most urgent” list here and this month’s below.
Impacts of the COVID-19 crackdown
Zhang Zhan, an independent journalist who had been posting reports from Wuhan on Twitter and YouTube since early February, went missing on May 14, one day after she published a video critical of the government’s countermeasures to contain the coronavirus. Shanghai issued a notice stating that Zhang had been arrested and detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She has reportedly been on a hunger strike for seven months, is being force-fed through a feeding tube and kept under physical restraint 24/7. China is the No. 1 jailer of journalists, according to CPJ, with 47 journalists behind bars. In two separate cases, journalists Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua went missing after reporting on COVID-19 from Wuhan and reappeared months later.
2. Solafa Magdy (Egypt)
Impact of “fake news” anti-press rhetoric
In 2020, Egypt led countries in imprisoning journalists on false news charges in 2020. That includes Solafa Magdy, a freelance reporter who has spent more than a year behind bars. Since her November 2019 arrest for covering immigration and human rights in Cairo, state prosecutors have filed additional charges for crimes allegedly committed while in pretrial detention. She has been charged with membership of a banned group and disseminating false news. Magdy’s health has suffered behind bars by deliberate medical neglect and inhumane prison conditions.Fellow Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir died from COVID-19, after contracting it while held in pretrial detention.
Covering protests an increasing danger
Belarus is a new addition to CPJ’s prison census, with 10 journalists behind bars as of December 1, compared to zero in 2019. Police in Belarus have been routinely arresting and charging journalists covering anti-government protests with “participating in unsanctioned rallies” and sentencing them to short stays in prison or fines. Katsiaryna Barysevich, who was arrested in November 2020 on suspicion of violating medical confidentiality with “grave consequences” in an article about the death of a man during a protest, is facing criminal charges punishable by up to three years in prison. Barysevich is a staff correspondent at the independent news website Tut.by and had been covering nationwide protests that erupted after the August 9 presidential election.
4. Dindar Karatas (Turkey)
Anti-state charges remain common across the globe
Kurdish journalist Dindar Karataş was detained and his equipment confiscated in November in the eastern city of Van. He was questioned in relation to his reporting and imprisoned pending trial on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization, the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Karataş was working as a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, covering a range of sensitive topics such as allegations of torture by state officials, prisoners’ rights and the Kurdish issue. A lawyer for Karataş told the prosecutors that his client wrote more than a hundred stories on different subjects for Mezopotamya during the time he worked there, and choosing 10 to 15 stories and calling them terrorism propaganda is not sufficient for an accusation.
CPJ’s Impunity Index has shown that, in 8 out of 10 cases, the killers of journalists go free. On August 13, José Abelardo Liz was shot and killed during a two-day military campaign to remove members of the Nasa Indigenous group from land near the western Colombian town of Corinto. Liz, 34, was a member of the Nasa Indigenous group and hosted a daily news and culture program, “El Sabor de la Tarde.” A spokesperson for the Nasa community said that soldiers “fired indiscriminately” at Nasa civilians and shot Liz in the chest. To date, there has been no progress in the investigation.
6. Maria Elena Ferral (Mexico)
A dangerous year in Mexico
At least five journalists died in Mexico in 2020. Two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot Maria Elena Ferral at least three times on March 30 while she was leaving the office of a local notary in the city of Papantla, in Veracruz state.She was rushed to a hospital and died during surgery. Ferral was a correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa newspaper and also cofounded El Quinto Poder, a local news website. Veracruz state authorities have issued arrest warrants for at least 11 people allegedly involved in the murder and arrested six of the suspects in the weeks following. Ferral’s daughter said her mother’s life had been in danger because of her writing about the murders of several candidates for mayor of Gutiérrez Zamora.
Local journalists bear the brunt of threats
About 96% of journalists killed in 2020 were local reporters. Freelancer Luis Alonzo Almendares was shot three times by two unidentified individuals on a motorcycle in September in Comayagua. While the shooters fled the scene, bystanders brought the journalist to a local hospital, and he died the next morning. Almendares had posted his local news reporting to his Facebook page, where he identified himself as “The Voice of the Comayaguans.” He had more than 40,000 followers and frequently reported on alleged corruption and mismanagement by local officials. In mid-October, a police spokesperson said that evidence was being analyzed, a hypothesis for the case was still being worked on, and there had been no arrests. There has been no progress in the investigation.
Local journalists bear the brunt of threats
Malalai Maiwand, a reporter at Enikass Radio and TV in Nangarhar and a women’s rights and civil society activist, and her driver were killed in December when unidentified gunmen opened fire on her vehicle. She was on her way to work in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Earlier in the year, Maiwand had mentioned she was receiving threats, and she had previously spoken about the challenges of being a female journalist in Afghanistan. Her killing came after representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group recently agreed to a framework to move forward with peace talks in Qatar.
9. Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia)
Threats for online reporters
Raif Badawi is a prominent blogger known for advocating secularism and a homegrown liberal system of governance in Saudi Arabia. In 2006, he founded an online discussion forum called “Saudi Liberals” that by 2008 had grown to more than 1,000 registered members who regularly discussed religion and politics. For his support of free discussion on liberal values, he was sentenced in 2012 to 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals (approximately $267,000 USD) and a 10-year ban on travel and media activity to begin after his release. In January 2015, 50 of the 1,000 lashes were carried out in one public session. He has faced medical issues behind bars. He briefly went on hunger strike in August 2020, citing a lack of protection in prison, after another inmate attacked him.
10. Arzu Geybulla (Azerbaijan/Turkey)
Online harassment a relentless threat
Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybulla, currently living in Turkey, has been targeted in an online harassment campaign via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook following the publication of an opinion piece accusing her of disrespecting victims/martyrs of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Geybulla is a columnist and writer, with a special focus on digital authoritarianism and its implications on human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan. Before this incident, she detailed in 2016 receiving several death threats and numerous messages threatening the safety of her and her family. Her home address has been published online, accompanied by threats of rape and physical violence.
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