In 2020, at least 247 reporters were jailed and 32 were killed according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, expressed hope that World Press Freedom Day May 3 would draw “attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating” verified information “by tackling misinformation and other harmful content.”
World Press Freedom Day is also, as the name suggests, about protecting the freedom of press and independence of journalists — a vital message in today’s media landscape.
“It is incumbent on all of us to counter these threats to a free and independent media, including physical risk and arbitrary detention,” President Joseph Biden said in a statement.
It was a stark contrast from his predecessor. “The United States, under President Trump, failed to stand up for press freedom at home and abroad,” wrote CPJ.
The below profiles, reported as part of our Stanford Journalism class in foreign correspondence, are a sampling of the many journalists who remain detained or who were arrested and released.
—By Chasity Hale
Journalist profiles written by Cade Cannedy, Chasity Hale, Sean Gallagher, Tilly Griffiths, Jasmine Kerber, Thomas Manglona, Phoebe Quinton, Leily Rezvani and Eric Ting.
Click on the points in the map to learn more about each journalist.
Amadou Vamoulké, Cameroon
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By: Sean Gallagher
On July 29, 2016, Amadou Vamoulké, the director of the state-owned Cameroon Radio and Television company (CRTV), was arrested on charges of embezzlement. Five years and over 30 court appearances later, Vamoulké has yet to be sentenced.
Cameroonian authorities have limited Vamoulké’s contact with the world outside the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Speaking through his lawyer, Vamoulké described the restrictions of his pretrial detainment. “When I have to go to court or the hospital, I have the privilege of a brawny escort: two police officers of the GSO [Cameroon’s Special Operations Group] plus a prison guard.” The 71-year-old Vamoulké was not permitted to attend his brother’s funeral last year and has not set foot in his home in over five years.
Cameroon’s criminal justice system ranks 126th out of 128 countries on the World Justice Project’s 2020 open letter”, Vamoulké stated that his independence could be the root cause of his arrest. The Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma Bakary, instructed Vamoulké’s replacements to “respect the editorial line of the CRTV, which is to support and to favor governmental actions above all other considerations.”
Until Vamoulké is released or convicted, he is stuck in a cramped limbo. He lives in a five-by-five-meter cell that holds 30 inmates squeezed together in bunk beds. The prison library burned down in a prison riot two years ago, and Vamoulké relies on books sent by friends and supporters to keep his mind active. Vamoulké credits his daily yoga routine for keeping him sane while he waits to be sentenced or released.
Raif Badawi, Saudi Arabia
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By: Tilly Griffiths
One thousand lashes because he said what he thought. This is the story of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger and activist who was detained on June 27, 2012 on a charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and who remains imprisoned in Saudi Arabia today.
A passionate human rights activist, Badawi first faced harassment and questioning from Saudi officials following the launch of his website, Free Saudi Liberals, in 2008, which was accused of criticising senior religious figures among other crimes associated with insulting Islam. However, it was not until four years later that he was arrested and charged in 2012, then later sentenced to seven years in prison with 1,000 lashes in July 2013. Just months later, following an appeal based on charges of apostasy, or Badawi’s formal abandonment of his religion, this sentence was increased to 10 years.
“I have the impression that his soul is being crushed, literally. This prison has crushed his soul,” Elham Manea, spokesperson for the Badawi family, told Middle East Eye when discussing the necessity of his prompt release. “From that perspective, it’s very urgent.”
After enduring 50 lashes in January 2015 outside Al Juffali Mosque in Jeddah, international outcry and a doctor’s medical examination mean Badawi has not faced flogging since. However, as he remains in Saudi imprisonment the threat of brutality lingers and Badawi has been subjected to solitary confinement, denial of essential medications, and isolation from family contacts. With a release date scheduled for 2022, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, campaigns tirelessly for his freedom from Quebec, Canada where she fled with their three children and was granted citizenship following his detainment.
Speaking on the prospect of Canadian citizenship for Badawi too as the family’s last hope for his early release, she told Deutsche Welle, “Since me and my children are Canadian, we have the Canadian citizenship and are living here, the citizenship gives me hope in terms of a family reunification.”
Katsiaryna Andreyeva, Belarus
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By: Jasmine Kerber
On November 15, 2020, Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Andreyeva streamed a live broadcast of a protest on the street below for Belsat TV. Police broke down the door of the apartment from whose window she was filming and arrested her for allegedly participating in and organizing protest actions. She denied the charges, but was sentenced to two years in prison.
Andreyeva’s husband, fellow journalist Igor Ilyash, said during an interview via online messaging application that police detained him for participating in the protest, too—even though he says he was nowhere near the area where the rally took place. “Now anyone who criticizes Lukashenko [Belarus’ president since 1994] can be arrested,” Ilyash wrote. “The secret services consider independent journalists to be enemies and purposefully persecute them.”
He believes he and Andreyeva were targeted for conducting investigative journalism that included writing about “corruption, illegal trade and abuses of the special services.” Ilyash stayed in jail just two weeks, but has been able to visit his wife.
“This Tuesday I got a two-hour visit with my wife in jail,” Ilyash said. “The date passed through the glass, we could not hug or kiss. Katya lost some weight in prison, but overall she feels fine. She is convinced that she can overcome everything.”
Adnan Bilen, Turkey
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By: Cade Cannedy
Turkish authorities detained Kurdish reporter Adnan Bilen and three colleagues after they published a story in the Mezopotamya News that Turkish military officers tortured two civilians and threw them from a military helicopter over Van Province, between Lake Van and the Iranian border. Four journalists—Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Şehriban Abi, and Nazan Sala—spent 179 days in jail before being released pending another trial scheduled for July 2. Prior to their release, Bilen and Uğur released statements from prison published in the MedyaNews.
“We were arrested for telling the truth, there is no evidence of any crime in the indictment prepared against us,” Bilen said. “Journalists should not be kept in prisons, they should be on the field, on the streets. Journalism is on trial. It should be the duty of any journalist to defend us and defend journalism.”
Bilen and the others were likely targeted based on their affiliation with news agencies who report the struggles of the ethnically marginalized Kurdish diaspora according to who? Cemil Uğur added “[Mezopotamya News] is the voice of the unheard, oppressed people in this country.” “Those who want to marginalize [Mezopotamya] want to bring all media outlets under their control,” Uğur said.
Sherwan Amin Sherwani, Kurdistan
By: Leily Rezvani
Iraqi Kurdish freelance journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani is serving his first year in prison after accusations of espionage from the Duhok and Erbil governances in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, according to Kurdish broadcaster NRT. Sherwani’s is expected to be detained until 2027. His sentence follows years of reports criticizing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and civilian casualties caused by Turkish airstrikes in the region.
In 1994, conflict broke out between the KDP, backed by Turkey, and leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), supported by Iran, which divided the Kurdish region in Iraq. The two parties have been at odds over resource allocation and Kurdistan rule. The Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) arose from the PUK and has called for an independent state in Turkey. The PKK has been recognized by the U.S., European Union, and other countries as a terrorist organization.
“Sherwani was arrested on anti-state charges” and for “allegedly violating Article 156 of the Iraqi penal Code, which states that any person who violates the independence, unity, or security of the country can be punished with life imprisonment,” Ignacio Delgado Culebras, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Middle East and North Africa representative, said in a statement.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council used video recordings to accuse Sherwani of spying for the PKK. Culebras claims that the CPJ found that the video is highly edited to “make pictures and bits of audio recordings taken out of context appear as conclusive evidence of their guilt.”
Sherwani has been arrested twice before in 2007 and 2012, the latter of which was following a piece critiquing former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s brother. In both instances, the Kurdish authorities have denied allegations that the detainment was related to Sherwani’s journalism. In an interview with CPJ Sherwani’s wife, Rugesh Izzaddin Muheiadin, said Sherwani’s “brother has been approached by KDP members and asked to convince Sherwan to give up journalism for good.”
Culebras also wrote that Karwan Gaznay, a member of Kurdistan’s parliament, “who attended the trial concluded that none of the evidence produced proved that Sherwani was guilty of the charges filed against him.” During his detention, Sherwani was threatened with the rape of his wife, according to a Facebook post by Gaznay that shared details of the trial.
An appeals court decided on April 28 to uphold the six-year sentence. Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s international advocacy coordinator, did not respond to a request for comment.
Abdurahman Abey, China
By Eric Ting
Abdurahman Abey, a senior Uighur publisher, was arrested by the Chinese Communist Party in July 2018 after being accused of “separatism and religious extremism activities,” according to Radio Free Asia.
Abey is a CCP official himself, and had a 40-year career as a publisher in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, serving as the CCP’s deputy secretary of the Xinjiang People’s Publishing House. Per Radio Free Asia, he won awards “every year” between 2003 and 2013.
Radio Free Asia reports that Abey first came under CCP scrutiny in 2015, and was questioned regularly by various agencies. He was detained in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In recent years, the Chinese government has sought to crack down on “two-faced Uighur” thought leaders they accuse of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” teachings.
Yuki Kitazumi, Myanmar
By: Thomas Manglona
Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi, 45, was arrested by Myanmar’s military junta at his home on April 18, released by security forces on May 13, and deported to Japan shortly after. Myanmar authorities say it was for the sake of maintaining its relations between the two countries. He was arrested on the suspicion of disseminating “fake news.”
“I wanted to report on what was going on in Yangon, but I’m frustrated about not being able to do it,” Kitazumi, told reporters upon arriving at the Narita International airport, according to Japan Today. “There are lots of things that people in Myanmar asked me to convey to the world.”
Kitazumi reported on the protests in Myanmar for Japanese news outlets. He previously reported for Nikkei business daily in Tokyo. He could have faced a jail term for as long as three years if convicted under a Myanmar penal code that criminalizes “fake news.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists along with other media organizations had called for his immediate release along with the 40 imprisoned journalists they found in preliminary investigations.
Esraa Abdelfattah, Egypt
By: Phoebe Quinton
Esraa Abdelfattah was abducted by plainclothes police officers on her way home from the movies on October 12, 2019. After being car chased and forcibly taken to an unknown location, Abdelfattah was tortured to unlock her phone and access her contacts. The police left her facing a wall for over seven hours, blindfolded and handcuffed, then beat her. When this failed, they suffocated her and strangled her with the jacket she was wearing. With her contact information, several more journalists were detained including Mohammed Salah and Solafa Magdy, with whom she went to the movies.
Abdelfattah was arrested for joining a terrorist organization and spreading misinformation through social media. She is an avid human rights defender and activist as founder of the “Free Egyptian Women Group,” co-founder the April 6 Movement for workers’ rights, project manager at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, and journalist at al-Tahrir newspaper.
She has been imprisoned, without a sentence, for over a year and a half. Every 45 days, the police renew her detention. In response to the abuse, Abdelfattah has gone on hunger strikes on and off during her imprisonment. On Aug. 23, 2020, she was transferred to the prison hospital after having a nervous breakdown and almost losing consciousness. She is still captive in Al-Qanatir Prison in Cairo.