US must act as journalists continue to be jailed in record numbers

US must act as journalists continue to be jailed in record numbers
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China edged out Turkey to take over as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia vied for third place on the ignoble list that my organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists, puts together each year. For the fourth consecutive year, at least 250 journalists are imprisoned in retaliation for their reporting. This represents not just a devastation for the journalist and their family and colleagues, but also a threat to the global information system and the ability to hold those in power accountable.

The U.S. must stop enabling this distressing trend through its inaction and tepid response to a plague that threatens to exterminate journalism in many countries.

Three U.S. allies top the list, yet they have paid no price for their attempts to eviscerate journalism. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all enjoy special military, economic and political relationships with the United States, yet have insulated themselves against independent and critical reporting using these tactics of repression and censorship year after year.


Just last month President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation MORE met with Turkish President Reccip Tayep Erdogan and, as far as we know, did not raise any concerns about Erdogan’s ignominious record, the closures of more than 100 news outlets, or attempts to equate reporting with terrorism. According to reports they discussed Syria and arms sales, a topic that has landed journalists in jail for reporting on or covering critically. I was on the Hill with Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Twitter tells facial-recognition app maker to stop collecting its data Democratic senator presses facial recognition company after reports of law enforcement collaboration MORE (D-Mass.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking Top intel office fails to meet deadline to give Khashoggi report to Congress: report MORE (D-Ore.) as they introduced a bill to hold Turkey accountable for its human rights abuses, but it has not gotten any traction as Congress seems to have little appetite for accountability either.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has continued to get a free pass by the administration and business community alike more than a year after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and despite a broader crackdown on press freedom. Saudi Arabia has been steadily ratcheting up repression as it has put more journalists behind bars each of the past eight years, with at least 26 journalists imprisoned — even as the country hosted a media summit that somehow drew a thousand participants to one of the most repressive countries in the world. Most journalists there are held without charges and some have reported abuse and torture in prison.

Why should we care that journalists are being thrown behind bars because of their reporting on politics, human rights and corruption, to name just a few of the most dangerous beats? Because it means that we, the public, are deprived of our right to know and that policymakers will miss out on crucial information which will help them make informed decisions, such as whether or not Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman is the reformer he purports to be or what they should do about weapons flowing to Syria from Turkey.

We should also care because without journalists to investigate, document and cajole witnesses into talking, the world will not believe that genocide, extermination and internment of entire populations are taking place. U.S. officials have taken action against massive human rights abuses in China and Burma only after investigative reporting revealed what was happening on the ground and drew the world’s attention.

Burmese journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were finally released this year after spending more than 500 days in jail for reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, which the UN labeled a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.


Meanwhile, just across the border in China, millions of Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up and sent to internment camps, including dozens of local journalists. Last month, an international consortium of journalists published an investigation that revealed further evidence of the massive crackdown in Xinjaing province. It is through the work of these journalists, building on the groundwork laid by locals, that the abuses of the Chinese government have been so thoroughly revealed, leading Congress to pass a bill sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for these massive human rights abuses.

These examples show that when American lawmakers and policymakers have information about human rights abuses, they can be prompted to act, but apparently only when the countries involved are not considered U.S. allies.

Repressive governments are imprisoning journalists at record numbers, but democracies and global leaders are standing by and letting them do so with impunity.

Obviously, relations between countries and government are complicated and involve many factors. But there is no excuse for the United States, home of the First Amendment and the author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to look away when journalists are being rounded up and thrown in jail.

Dr. Courtney C. Radsch is advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) and is the author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change. Follow her on Twitter @courtneyr