As more and more women take up journalism, so too have women journalists increasingly been the victims of ruthless persecution by authoritarian regimes. According to RSF’s tally, of the 334 journalists in prison at the end of February, 27 of them – or 8% – were women. Five years ago, only 3% of imprisoned journalists were women.
These women journalists are being held by nine countries. Iran and China are the two largest jailers of women journalists, with seven held in each country. They are followed by Turkey which – despite freeing the famous Kurdish journalist and artist Zehra Doğan two weeks ago – continues to detain four other women journalists. Saudi Arabia is holding three women journalists, Vietnam two and Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Nicaragua are each holding one.
Targeted for what they write, charged with the worst crimes
Although targeted by the authorities because of their articles or social network posts, these women are usually held on charges of “terrorist propaganda” or “membership of a terrorist group,” as in Turkey and Egypt, or for “suspicious contacts with foreign entities,” as in Saudi Arabia. Although vague and unsubstantiated, allegations of this kind are used to impose long jail terms.
In Iran, journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and Paineveste blog editor Hengameh Shahidi were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in prison respectively on charges of “conspiring against national security and the Islamic Republic” and “insulting” the head of the judicial system. Roya Saberi Negad Nobakht, who has British and Iranian dual citizenship, initially received a 20-year prison sentence in 2014 for her Facebook posts. It was later reduced to five years.
Some countries have no reservations about imposing the longest possible prison terms in order to silence outspoken voices. This is the case in China. Gulmira Imin, a member of the Uyghur Muslim community and editor of the news website Salkin, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010 on charges of “separatism” and “divulging state secrets.”
A well-known 74-year-old journalist, Nazlı Ilıcak, received the same sentence in Turkey for taking part in a TV broadcast critical of the government on the eve of an abortive coup attempt in July 2016. She and two male colleagues, the Altan brothers, were sentenced to “aggravated” imprisonment for life, the harshest form of isolation, with no furloughs and no possibility of a pardon.
“Twenty-seven woman journalists are currently deprived of their freedom because of what they wrote or because they spoke out courageously,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “They are spared nothing. They are often the victims of disproportionate and iniquitous sentences. They are subjected to the most appalling prison conditions, like their male colleagues, and they are sometimes also tortured and harassed sexually. We call for their immediate release and we urge the United Nations to take up these cases.”
Women, like their male colleagues, are liable to be subjected to extremely harsh prison conditions. Lucía Pineda Ubau, the news director of the Nicaraguan TV news channel 100% Noticias, spent 41 days in Managua’s El Chipote high-security prison before being transferred to a women’s prison at the end of December. The conditions in El Chipote, where the former Somoza family dictatorship used to torture its political prisoners, are “inhumane,” according to José Inácio Faria, a Portuguese MEP who visited Pineda there.
Tran Thi Nga, a Vietnamese blogger who defended migrant workers, was held incommunicado for more than six months after her arrest, until finally sentenced to nine years in prison on a charge of “anti-state propaganda” in a one-day trial on July 25, 2017. She was denied phone calls and visits for nearly a year because she “refused to admit her guilt.” Her lawyer, who was only able to meet her once before the trial, voiced alarm about her state of health, which he said was worsening steadily.
In Iran detainees are constantly denied proper medical care, whether in Gerchak, one of the country’s worst prisons, where three women who worked for the Sufi website Majzooban Noor - Sepideh Moradi, Avisha Jalaledin and Shima Entesari – are serving five-year jail sentences, or in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Women journalists detained in Iran often stage dangerous hunger strikes in protest against prison conditions, including the lack of adequate medical attention.
Several UN reports have confirmed that Iranian female detainees fall sick more often than male detainees. The situation of female detainees is aggravated by the segregation of men and women imposed by Iran’s ultra-conservative society and the traditional hatred towards intellectuals and the Islamic regime’s critics.
“Health conditions are bad enough for the men but the lack of hygiene in prison is even more terrible and problematic for the women," said Narges Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani.
Tortured, humiliated and sexually harassed
They are spared none of the worst forms of mistreatment. In China, Gulmira Imin was tortured and forced to sign documents without being able to see her lawyer. For women, physical torture is compounded by the threat of rape and sexual harassment.
According to the family of Shorouq Amjad Ahmed al Sayed, a young photojournalist arrested in Egypt on April 25, 2018, she was beaten unconscious, insulted, and threatened with rape until the she made the confession sought by her interrogators -- namely that she had created a website with the aim of endangering public order and belonged to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
There is a great deal of concern about two Saudi women citizen-journalists, Eman al Nafjan, who blogged as Saudiwoman, and Nouf Abdulaziz Al Jerawi, who wrote for The Arab Noon and other websites. According to the Saudi human rights NGO Al-Qst, they were among several women’s rights activists who were tortured following arrest in the spring of 2018, some of whom were also harassed sexually, made to undress, and photographed naked while forced to embrace other female detainees.
Disappeared in detention
The Saudi authorities have not yet said what charges are being brought against Nafjan and Jerawi. Six other women journalists are currently being held without trial in other parts of the world. In some cases, their families have lost all contact with them. In China, no one knows what has become of three women citizen-journalists, Zhang Jixin, Qin Chao and Li Zhaoxiu, who were arrested in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively.
The Syrian blogger Tal al-Mallouhi has also disappeared in detention. As she was sentenced to five years in prison in 2011, she should have been released a long time ago. She was last seen alive in 2016 when she was transferred to the state security prison in Damascus. The world’s youngest detained women journalist at the time of her arrest in December 2009, when she was still 18, she is now one of the longest held behind bars.