As world focuses on Manning and Miranda cases, developing nations are jailing journalists in record numbers

Journalists in developing countries are being imprisoned in record numbers, most commonly under charges related to terrorism or subversion.

This morning a military judge sentenced Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison for providing a massive trove of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. He was convicted last month under laws including the Espionage Act, a nearly century-old statute that the Obama Administration has increasingly used to prosecute leakers and demand information from journalists.

Private Manning’s sentence was announced three days after the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Miranda was held for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport by British authorities under Section 7 of the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act.

The events of the past few days have generated considerable angst among Western journalists. The detention of Manning and (however briefly) Miranda, and the extended legal battles that preceded them, have raised fears that acts long considered to be protected parts of the journalistic process may no longer be safe. But largely unnoticed has been the fact that detention of journalists on national security and terrorism charges has recently skyrocketed in many parts of the developing world, bringing the number of journalists in jail to a record high worldwide. 

As of December 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were 232 journalists in prison around the world, a number that has nearly tripled since the end of 2000. Fifty-seven percent of the journalists currently imprisoned – 132 in total – are being held on “anti-state” charges such terrorism, treason and subversion.

 “One of the main reasons that the number of journalists in jail around the world has increased is because of the use of these anti-terror laws,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s Executive Director.

The world’s leading jailer of journalists is Turkey, which holds 49 journalists in jail. Many of these reporters are Kurdish and have been charged under anti-terror laws, which critics say do not distinguish between violent separatists and the act of covering their activities. “There is no difference between the bullets fired and the articles written in Ankara,” Turkish Interior Minister Naim Idris Sahin infamously stated last September.

Other leading jailers of journalists under anti-state charges include Iran, which held 40 journalists in jail in advance of its presidential elections, and China, which held 32 journalists in prison, including 19 Tibetans and Uyghurs imprisoned on anti-state charges after documenting ethnic tensions. Ethiopia, which expanded the reach of its anti-terrorism law in 2009, recently arrested more journalists, bringing its total to six.

Is there a connection between the recent developments in the United States and United Kingdom and the harsher but far less publicized crackdown taking place in many developing countries?

There are obvious differences. One is the disparity in legal institutions and the rule of law. Manning received a lengthy military trial while Eritrea, for example, imprisoned 28 journalists without charging any of them with a crime. Another is the distinction between leakers and journalists. In the West reporters themselves have for the most part been safe, even as their confidentiality has been breached and their sources have faced substantial prison terms. There are also huge differences in the political context of each country: Turkey, for example, contends with violent Kurdish separatist groups whose actions make its terrorism charges far more credible to its population.

However, the CPJ’s Simon contends that the common thread is a growing tolerance for cracking down on journalism under the banner of fighting terrorism. Many repressive regimes, he said, have exploited the broad post-9/11 counterterrorism policies in the West to justify cracking down on internal dissent. 

Reporting on ethnic conflict, corruption and human rights may now fall squarely in the crosshairs of these governments.

 “They can take a repressive strategy and dress it up as a legitimate attempt to prevent terror,” Simon said. “And it’s a lot easier when countries like the U.S. and in Europe use this rhetorical framework.”

In a similar vein, others have raised concerns that the crackdown on leaks undermines the United States and other developed nations’ credibility in seeking to promote freedom of the press abroad. “Actions like the seizure of The A.P.’s phone records send the wrong signal to the enemies of press freedom worldwide,” wrote Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and my former professor, in a post for The New York Times. “Overseas, they erode American credibility on an issue in which Washington has traditionally held the high ground.”

 As the Manning verdict and ongoing Snowden spectacle play out, their outcomes will hit home for American and British leakers, and Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and the other reporters currently battling it out with their governments. What remains to be seen is how they might affect thousands of other journalists waging their own struggles, often in much more perilous conditions, across the developing world.

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