Half the journalists in jail work online, and most of them are freelancers.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 8 2009 10:02 AM

The Battle for Press Freedom Moves Online

Half the journalists in jail work online, and most of them are freelancers.

Iranian protest. Click image to expand.
Iranian protesters

From Tibet to Tehran, more and more front-line reporting is being carried out by freelancers and published online. But the revolution in newsgathering—brought about by new technology and the downsizing of traditional media outlets—has a down side. For the first time, half of all journalists jailed around the world worked online as bloggers, reporters, or Web editors. Most of them are freelancers with little or no institutional support.

These are the key findings of a report released Dec. 8 by the Committee To Protect Journalists. The annual census of imprisoned journalists was conducted on Dec. 1 and includes every journalist who was in jail on that day. All told, there are 136 journalists on the list, an increase of 11 from the previous year. Sixty-eight of them worked online, the vast majority of them freelancers.

For the 11th year in a row, China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with 24 behind bars. It is followed closely by Iran, where 23 journalists remain in jail, out of dozens rounded up in the aftermath of the disputed June 12 election. Cuba, Eritrea, and Burma round out the top five.

A closer look at the numbers in China reveals just how dramatically the Internet has transformed both newsgathering and the dissemination of critical commentary in repressive societies.

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A decade ago, when China first topped the list, most of those jailed were print reporters for mainstream media outlets who had gone too far in their criticism of government officials. The Chinese media are much more open today, but there are still clear limits, and journalists who displease the authorities face consequences. The difference is that they are more likely to be fired than thrown in jail.

But online journalists can't be fired, blacklisted, or, in most cases, bought off precisely because most work independently. They don't have employers who can be pressured. Chinese authorities have few options when it comes to reining in online critics—censor them, intimidate them, or throw them in jail. This explains why 18 of the 24 journalists imprisoned in China worked online.

In Iran, there's a similar dynamic. The 23 reporters jailed there fall roughly into two camps—those who worked for print media outlets allied with opposition candidates and those who worked independently online. Under the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami, 1997-2005, the Tehran intelligentsia famously spent hours in cafes perusing dozens of newspapers and magazines, reformist and conservative. A crackdown on the print media that accelerated under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad closed many newspapers and forced top journalists and commentators online, fueling the rise of the Farsi blogosphere. Today, many of these journalists are in jail or in exile.

Unquestionably, the rise of Web-based reporting provides exciting new opportunities. An adventurous young freelancer can head out to cover the world armed with a laptop and a digital camera. Government critics from Burma to Vietnam are able to circumvent the censors and get their views out to the world.

But the sharp increase in the number of imprisoned online journalists highlights new vulnerabilities. They are utterly alone when authorities knock on the door to take them away. Freelancers face jail without legal assistance or the backing of an employer who can provide support for their families.

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