There were 274 journalists in jail on Dec. 1—the most since the Committee to Protect Journalists began its troubling annual census in 1992.
The New York-based advocacy group said that in 2020, authoritarian governments took advantage both of the global pandemic and of the example provided by President Donald Trump, whose assault on an independent press and labeling of unwelcome facts as “fake news” reversed a long U.S. legacy of promoting free expression abroad.
“The record number of journalists imprisoned around the world is President Trump’s press freedom legacy,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon said in a statement. The group called on President-elect Joesph Biden to “work as part of a global coalition to bring the number down.”
There’s no shortage of opportunities: Of the four countries that jailed the most journalists, three—Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—rely heavily on their ties to the Washington, which means a U.S. administration inclined to apply pressure has leverage to do so.
Because fear of embarrassment is often why a government jails a journalist in the first place, the mere threat to publicly condemn the jailing can produce results. CPJ estimates that its own advocacy contributed to the early release of 75 journalists during 2020 (those prisoners are not reflected in the 274 total, taken in a “snapshot” each Dec. 1.)
China once again had the most journalists in jail, 47, including three still imprisoned for criticizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which CPJ noted can turn even temporary detention into a death sentence.
In Egypt, journalist Mohamed Monir, who was arrested on June 15 for criticizing the government’s performance against the pandemic, contracted the virus in jail and died on July 13 of complications from COVID-19.