China is the worst jailer of journalists in the world, a report by a New York-based watchdog said, and nearly half of the journalists behind bars in the country are Uyghurs who reported on the persecution of the mostly Muslim group in Xinjiang.
In its 2023 prison census, conducted on Dec. 1, the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, found that there was a spike in arrested journalists, with 320 believed to be behind bars – close to a record high.
More than half of those jailed journalists were charged with false news, anti-state or terrorism charges in retaliation for their coverage, the group’s research found.
China led all countries, with 44 journalists in prison, accounting for 32% of the worldwide total. Following closely behind was Myanmar, with 43. Vietnam was fifth on the list with 19, ahead of Iran and just behind Russia.
“China has long ranked as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists,” the report said. “Censorship makes the exact number of journalists jailed there notoriously difficult to determine, but Beijing’s media crackdown has widened in recent years, with 2021 marking the first time journalists from Hong Kong were in jail at the time of CPJ’s census.”
In addition to Hong Kong, Xinjiang was another chief area of concern, according to the report. Of the 44 imprisoned journalists in China, 19 are Uyghurs.
Among them is Ilham Tohti, a professor who was also the founder of the news website Uighurbiz. Tohti was arrested almost exactly 10 years ago, and later sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism.
Another is Qurban Mamut, the former editor-in-chief of the popular Uyghur journal Xinjiang Civilization. Mamut went missing in November 2017 and RFA learned in 2022 that he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “political crimes.”
“Chinese authorities are also ramping up the use of anti-state charges to hold journalists, with three out of the five new China cases in CPJ’s 2023 database consisting of journalists accused of espionage, inciting separatism, or subverting state power,” the report said.
“Many journalists charged are ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, where Beijing has been accused of crimes against humanity for its mass detentions and harsh repression of the region’s mostly Muslim ethnic groups,” it said.
‘Silencing minority voices’
The disproportionate number of jailed Uyghur journalists mirrors the situation in Xinjiang, Beh Lih Yi, the CPJ’s Asia program coordinator told RFA Uyghur.
“Nearly half of the journalists behind bars in China in 2023 were Uighur journalists. They have been targeted under vague charges such as inciting separatism or being ‘two-faced,’ a loose term Chinese authorities often use to punish those they see as publicly supporting government policy but secretly opposing it,” said Yi.
“The media repression highlights the Chinese government’s harsh attempt to silence minority voices and independent reporting – even as Beijing repeatedly rejected claims of widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” he said.
He said that long-term sentences for Uyghur journalists were “outrageous and cruel,” and called on the Chinese government to release all its imprisoned journalists and allow all journalists to freely report in Xinjiang.
The report proves the importance of the work of Uyghur journalists, Zubayra Shamseden of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project said.
“It is clear from the imprisonment of Uyghur journalists that China doesn’t want the international community to know anything about Uyghurs,” said Shamseden. “Uyghur journalists report on Uyghur issues. They are the voices of the Uyghur people in the world. By imprisoning Uyghur journalists, China is attempting to crush the voices of Uyghurs.”
The report also noted that Israel saw a huge spike of journalist jailings last year, with all those known to be behind bars on the date of the census having been arrested in the West Bank.
Additional reporting by Mamatjan Juma. Edited by Malcolm Foster.