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Why Are So Many Journalists in Jail?

04/15/2014 12:41 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

I recently wrote an article criticizing two Canadian Cabinet ministers and the absolute privilege of irreverence struck me yet again. I didn't have to spend a week sleeping anywhere but home to avoid thugs, or worry about my family losing their jobs, or alert my friends -- especially my international ones -- that I feared jail and to keep the media on my case if I disappeared.

If I did expect any of that, I don't think I would have the courage to write. That is a great tragedy in societies without press freedom or freedom of speech, that critics can be silenced by the powerful, invisible force of self-censorship.

Disturbingly, it's the ones who defy that force that make the case for self-censorship stronger: They face the outsized punishment that is also an explicit warning to the rest. Jail, harassment, or worse for journalists and their families has the ultimate demonstration effect.

A reporter in Mexico summed the rationale for staying quiet, for only covering the soft stories in his narco-ruled city, to fellow journalist Óscar Martínez: "Because I live here. And my family lives here."

Martínez explains, in his book The Beast, "For those who live in the middle of the violence in these towns, for those who travel without bodyguards and earn a pittance for their work, for those who work from their homes where their kids live and play, silence is understandable."

In countries where autocrats control and restrict information, the demonstrations are chilling. Take these three cases from Vietnam, Turkey, and Ethiopia (ranked in the bottom 40 out of 180 countries on the 2014 World Press Freedom Index):

Nguyen Van Hai, pen name Dieu Cay, is a Vietnamese blogger currently serving a 12-year prison sentence. He covered government corruption and other sensitive issues -- or, in the language of his charges, he 'conducted propaganda' against the state. The little that's known about his condition in Vietnam's infamous prison camps is from rarely-approved visits by family, sometimes just five minutes long.

Hatice Duman is a former owner and news editor of Atilim (Leap), a socialist weekly, and is serving a life sentence in Turkey on several charges including propaganda, weapons seizure, and attempted use of force to change the constitutional order. Part of the evidence used to lay these dubious charges, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was witness testimony by Duman's husband who says he gave it under torture. Turkey ranked first for the number of jailed members of the press until March 2014, and RSF calls the country "one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists."

Reeyot Alemu is a freelance columnist and former high school English teacher in Addis Ababa. She is serving a five-year sentence on a conviction of promoting terrorist attacks. Her columns criticized the government for nepotism and cronyism -- for reserving good careers and education for the friends and family of elites. Alemu also compared Ehtiopian-style governance to that of Muammar Qaddafi. Alemu reported being tortured in jail, prompting UN criticism when Ethiopia failed to investigate.

What's behind censorship? The essence is image and interests. No government wants embarrassing facts circulated by the press. Some governments mitigate this risk by curbing embarrassing behaviour; others choke anyone who points it out. And no government wants to damage its own interests, which directly counter the public interest wherever state officials collude in corruption and thuggery.

The Committee to Protect Journalists tallied the charges against jailed journalists around the world and found the majority are anti-state charges like subversion and terrorism. The easier it is to be handled as a subversive or terrorist - and unenviably, it's easiest for Turks, Iranians, and Chinese, according to CPJ -- the less likely it is that reporters will confront state image and interests.

Sticking with Vietnam, Turkey and Ethiopia, there's a lot of material for writers. Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said in his New Year's address, that "any restrictions on freedom of citizens must be ... only for the sake of national defence and security, social safety and order and preservation of our cultural, historical and moral values" -- for anything, in other words. Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to ban Twitter and social media before elections in March, explaining "I cannot understand how sensible people still defend Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. They run all kinds of lies." And Ethiopia's head, Hailemariam Desalegn, vowed (in Qaddafi-style eloquence) to continue the legacy of his predecessor, dictator Meles Zenawi, "without any change" because "we brought peace, democracy and development to the country."

In all three countries, anti-press freedom laws give leaders the impunity to act on their arrogance, and silence whoever bears witness to their delusions and exposes the ugly underside of their societies. That cheats all of us out of being better informed, global citizens.

Imagine a world without a George Orwell and The Road to Wigan Pier, without Katherine Boo and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or without Óscar Martínez and The Beast. What if Britain, the United States, and El Salvador had silenced these radicals before they ever documented working class poverty, the economics of slum life, and the horror of migrant trails?

Of course not every writer behind bars is a prodigy, but some likely are. There are 211 jailed journalists worldwide, as of December 2013, and a countless community of silenced colleagues attached to each one. Imagine what we're missing.

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