The next time someone jokes about "fake news," stop them in their tracks and remind them that a record number of journalists around the world sit behind bars today for the crime of seeking the truth. In its annual survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 262 journalists are imprisoned for reasons connected to their work, an increase over last year's historical high of 259.
By far the worst offender, for a second year, is Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on journalists since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Turkey has 73 journalists in prison for their work, according to the CPJ, and other sources say the total may be higher. Erdogan claims to be rooting out the network of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, once an ally in Turkish politics who now lives in Pennsylvania and is in Erdogan's crosshairs as the alleged instigator of the overthrow attempt.
The CPJ noted that Turkish authorities accused some journalists of terrorist activity based on alleged use of a messaging app, ByLock, or because they had bank accounts at certain institutions. In March, CPJ reported, an Istanbul court ordered at least 19 journalists released who had been jailed in the aftermath of the coup attempt, "but the prosecutor appealed and the journalists were rearrested before they left the jail. The judges who ordered their release were suspended."
China also continued to be dangerous territory for inquiring reporters. Forty-one are in prison there for their work, the survey showed. The ruling Communist Party has a history of repressing free speech and punishing journalists and dissidents, but there have also been periods of relative relaxation. Now, under President Xi Jinping, China appears to be heading back toward demanding strict obedience from the media. Those who don't heel, such as Lu Yuyu, are thrown in jail. Lu is an Internet journalist who collected information about protest outbreaks, such as those against land expropriation, wage arrears, official corruption and pollution; for that, he is serving a four-year sentence in Yunnan province.
In third place is Egypt, where President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who overthrew a democratically elected president, has used draconian counterterrorism laws to sweep up journalists and hold them for prolonged periods, often without trial. According to the report, of the 20 journalists in Egyptian jails, 12 have not been convicted or sentenced for any crime. The CPJ noted that broad and vague anti-terrorism laws are being used ever more frequently to intimidate journalists worldwide, often conflating coverage of terrorist activity with condoning it.
Illiberalism is rising in many corners of the world, and when journalists are arrested, it is often a sign of worse to come. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump echoes the rhetoric of despots in these countries with his combative slogan of "fake news." What's not fake at all is that journalists everywhere are under increased threat because of rulers who take encouragement from Trump's malice.