In May 2019, WIRED joined the One Free Press Coalition, a united group of preeminent editors and publishers using their global reach and social platforms to spotlight journalists under attack worldwide. This month, the coalition is issuing its 23rd monthly “10 Most Urgent” list of journalists whose press freedoms are being suppressed or whose cases demand justice.
Coalition members joined widespread calls for jailed journalists to be released due to heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 in detention conditions. Six imprisoned journalists who were featured on the 10 Most Urgent list in 2020 are now free. At least 207 press freedom violations worldwide in 2020 related to the pandemic, according to research from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Here’s January’s list, ranked in order of urgency:
Zhang Zhan, an independent journalist who had been posting reports from Wuhan on Twitter and YouTube since early February, went missing on May 14, one day after she published a video critical of the government’s countermeasures to contain the coronavirus. Shanghai issued a notice stating that Zhang had been arrested and detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She has reportedly been on a hunger strike for seven months and is being force-fed through a feeding tube and kept under physical restraint 24/7. China is the number one jailer of journalists, according to CPJ, with 47 journalists behind bars. In two separate cases, journalists Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua went missing after reporting on Covid-19 from Wuhan and reappeared months later.
In 2020, Egypt led countries in imprisoning journalists on false-news charges. That included Solafa Magdy, a freelance reporter who has spent more than a year behind bars. Since her November 2019 arrest for covering immigration and human rights in Cairo, state prosecutors have filed additional charges for crimes allegedly committed while in pretrial detention. She has been charged with membership of a banned group and disseminating false news. Magdy’s health has suffered behind bars due to deliberate medical neglect and inhumane prison conditions. Fellow Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir died from Covid-19, after contracting it while held in pretrial detention.
Belarus is a new addition to CPJ’s prison census, with 10 journalists behind bars as of December 1, compared to zero in 2019. Police in Belarus have been routinely arresting and charging journalists covering anti-government protests with “participating in unsanctioned rallies” and sentencing them to short stays in prison or fines. Katsiaryna Barysevich, who was arrested in November 2020 on suspicion of violating medical confidentiality with “grave consequences” in an article about the death of a man during a protest, is facing criminal charges punishable by up to three years in prison. Barysevich is a staff correspondent at the independent news website Tut.by and had been covering nationwide protests that erupted after the August 9 presidential election.
Kurdish journalist Dindar Karataş was detained and his equipment confiscated in November in the eastern city of Van. He was questioned in relation to his reporting and imprisoned pending trial on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization, the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Karataş was working as a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, covering a range of sensitive topics such as allegations of torture by state officials, prisoners’ rights, and the Kurdish issue. A lawyer for Karataş told the prosecutors that his client wrote more than a hundred stories on different subjects for Mezopotamya during the time he worked there, and choosing 10 to 15 stories and calling them terrorism propaganda is not sufficient for an accusation.
CPJ’s Impunity Index has shown that, in eight out of 10 cases, the killers of journalists go free. On August 13, José Abelardo Liz was shot and killed during a two-day military campaign to remove members of the Nasa indigenous group from land near the western Colombian town of Corinto. Liz, 34, was a member of the Nasa indigenous group and hosted a daily news and culture program, El Sabor de la Tarde. A spokesperson for the Nasa community said that soldiers “fired indiscriminately” at Nasa civilians and shot Liz in the chest. To date, there has been no progress in the investigation.
At least five journalists died in Mexico in 2020. On March 30, two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot Maria Elena Ferral at least three times while she was leaving the office of a local notary in the city of Papantla, in Veracruz state. She was rushed to a hospital and died during surgery. Ferral was a correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa newspaper and also cofounded El Quinto Poder, a local news website. Veracruz state authorities have issued arrest warrants for at least 11 people allegedly involved in the murder and arrested six of the suspects in the weeks following. Ferral’s daughter said her mother’s life had been in danger because of her writing about the murders of several candidates for mayor of Gutiérrez Zamora.
About 96 percent of journalists killed in 2020 were local reporters. Freelancer Luis Alonzo Almendares was shot three times by two unidentified individuals on a motorcycle in September in Comayagua. While the shooters fled the scene, bystanders brought the journalist to a local hospital, and he died the next morning. Almendares had posted his local news reporting to his Facebook page, where he identified himself as “the voice of the Comayaguans.” He had more than 40,000 followers and frequently reported on alleged corruption and mismanagement by local officials. In mid-October, a police spokesperson said that evidence was being analyzed, a hypothesis for the case was still being worked on, and there had been no arrests. There has been no progress in the investigation.
Malalai Maiwand, a reporter at Enikass Radio and TV in Nangarhar and a women’s rights and civil society activist, and her driver were killed in December when unidentified attackers shot at her vehicle. She was on her way to work in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Earlier in the year, Maiwand had mentioned she was receiving threats, and she had previously spoken about the challenges of being a female journalist in Afghanistan. Her killing came after representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group recently agreed to a framework to move forward with peace talks in Qatar.
Raif Badawi is a prominent blogger known for advocating secularism and a homegrown liberal system of governance in Saudi Arabia. In 2006, he founded an online discussion forum called Saudi Liberals that by 2008 had grown to more than 1,000 registered members who regularly discussed religion and politics. For his support of free discussion on liberal values, he was sentenced in 2012 to 10 years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals (approximately $267,000), and a 10-year ban on travel and media activity to begin after his release. In January 2015, 50 of the 1,000 lashes were carried out in one public session. He has faced medical issues behind bars. He briefly went on hunger strike in August 2020, citing a lack of protection in prison, after another inmate attacked him.
Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybulla, currently living in Turkey, has been targeted in an online harassment campaign via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook following the publication of an opinion piece accusing her of disrespecting victims of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Geybulla is a columnist and writer, with a special focus on digital authoritarianism and its implications for human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan. Before this incident, she detailed in 2016 receiving several death threats and numerous messages threatening the safety of her and her family. Her home address has been published online, accompanied by threats of rape and physical violence.
The One Free Press Coalition is made up of nearly 40 prominent international members, including: Al Jazeera Media Network, AméricaEconomía; the Associated Press; Bloomberg News; the Boston Globe; BuzzFeed; Corriere Della Sera; De Standaard; Deutsche Welle; Estadão; Euractiv; the Financial Times; Forbes; Fortune; HuffPost; India Today; Insider Inc.; Le Temps; Middle East Broadcasting Networks; NHK; Office of Cuba Broadcasting; Quartz; Radio Free Asia; Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty; Republik; Reuters; the Straits Times; Süddeutsche Zeitung; Time; TV Azteca; Voice of America; The Washington Post; WIRED; and Yahoo News.
One Free Press Coalition partners with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation to identify the most urgent cases for the list, which is updated and published on the first business day of every month.
The mission of the coalition is to use the collective voices of its members—which reach more than 1 billion people worldwide—to “stand up for journalists under attack for pursuing the truth.” News organizations throughout the world can join the Coalition by emailing email@example.com. Members of the public are also encouraged to join the conversation using the hashtag #OneFreePress and following developments on Twitter @OneFreePress.