779 journalists were jailed in 2023, 547 will spend New Year’s Eve in prison

Journalistes détenus dans le monde

Arbitrary imprisonment of journalists is widely used in many countries to suppress the right to news and information. Nearly 800 journalists were jailed at some point in 2023 and almost 550 will spend the start of 2024 in prison. Nearly half of them are detained in just four countries – China, Myanmar, Belarus and Vietnam.

Imprisonment is used to persecute journalists in nearly half of the world’s countries. In the last five years, at least one journalist has been detained in connection with their work in 86 countries. 

A total of 779 journalists were jailed at some point in 2023 and 547 are currently in prison or under house arrest in a total of 45 countries. The prison sentences passed on journalists this year ranged from one week to 20 years.

China continues to be the world’s biggest jailer of journalists – with 121 currently detained. It is followed by Myanmar (69), which imposed the longest jail term by far on a journalist this year when it sentenced  Sai Zaw Thaike, a photo-journalist, to 20 years in prison on a range of charges including “disinformation” and “sedition.” 

Record sentences for women journalists

The sentences passed on women journalists broke records in 2023. No women journalist had been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison since 2019, but six of the eight longest sentences in 2023 were passed on women journalists. They are being subjected to appalling persecution in Iran, where Elaheh Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi were sentenced to 12 and 13 years in prison, respectively; in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian government gave independent journalism icons Maryna Zolatava, Liudmila Chekina and Valeriya Kastsiuhova jail terms ranging from 10 to 12 years; and in Burundi, where Floriane Irangabiye, one of the few women journalists jailed in sub-Saharan Africa, is serving a 10-year sentence.

“Each journalist in prison is by definition a journalist prevented from working. But it’s also a journalist who will be intimidated in the future. And It’s hundreds or even thousands of colleagues feeling a threat hanging over their head. So, the right to news and information of millions of people could be violated. Behind these statistics, there are human tragedies and political consequences. I salute the courage of all these journalists, women and men, who have dared to brave the dangers imposed by authoritarian governments. And I thank RSF’s team, especially our correspondents in more than 130 countries, for doing everything possible to obtain their release.

Christophe Deloire
RSF secretary-general

Imprisonment normalised in Türkiye and Iran

Türkiye and Iran were among the biggest jailers of journalists in 2023. Their governments constantly used detention – often repeated short-term detention – as a way to intimidate journalists. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government detained nearly 50 journalists in Türkiye in the course of 2023 and five are still being held at the end of the year, including four Kurdish journalists. In Iran, 58 journalists spent more than 48 hours in the government’s prisons in the course of 2023 and 21 are still there, including five women. Iran’s persecution of the media has increased since the start of the protests in response of Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody on 16 September 2022. The authorities have created a repressive labyrinth based on arbitrary arrests and trials on spurious charges.

Israel-Hamas war – more Palestinian journalists detained 

The number of Palestinian journalists being arrested and detained by Israeli forces has increased considerably since the start of the war on 7 October. At least 34 are still detained at the end of 2023. Most are held without charge or trial. This is especially the case with the 19 of them who are subject to administrative detention – a form of “preventive” detention under which the Israeli security forces can hold anyone without judicial procedure for “security reasons.” This use of detention to harass Palestinian reporters, mainly in the West Bank, comes in addition to the deadly persecution in the Gaza Strip, where at least 76 journalists have been killed by the Israeli military since the start of the war, including at least 16 in the course of their work. 

Independent journalism crushed in Vietnam, Russia and Afghanistan

Vietnam, Russia and Afghanistan are also among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. In Vietnam, where the media have to follow the single party’s orders, 43 journalists spent at least 48 hours in detention in 2023 and 36 are currently held. They include 20 bloggers such as Nguyen Lan Thang, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in April 2023 for “anti-state propaganda.”

In Russia, in a hostile climate towards independent media and media personnel, 34 journalists were detained in the course of the past 12 months, and 29 are still in prison as of 29 December. They include two US citizens: Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is accused of spying, and Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Russian and American dual nationality working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, who was arrested while visiting her family in Russia and charged with failing to identify herself as a “foreign agent.”

Spying charges are also used against journalists in Afghanistan, where Mortaza Behboudi’s long-awaited release on 18 October 2023 underscored the dangers of journalism under the Taliban, who have been persecuting independent media ever since retaking power in August 2021. They jailed 21 journalists in 2023 and are currently holding three.

Jailed in political crises, civil war

Elections intensified President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s relentless persecution of the media in Egypt in 2023, with the result that a total of 20 journalists and bloggers are currently detained. They include a blogger known as Mohamed Oxygen, the founder of the Oxygen Misr blog, who has been held since 2019 on a charge of “publishing fake news” for covering anti-government protests. Awarded the 2023 RSF Prize for Courage, he has been subjected to solitary confinement in Cairo’s Badr prison since May 2023 for defending a fellow detainee. 

Covering armed conflicts can also result in imprisonment. This is why the authorities have been targeting journalists in Ethiopia, where 14 are currently detained and 22 were jailed in 2023 as fighting intensified in the Amhara region and the government disbanded regional military forces. 

Although 2022 was a record year with a total of 569 journalists detained worldwide as of 31 December 2022, imprisonment continues to be widely used to combat press freedom and no fewer than 547 journalists are due to start 2024 in prison.

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