The number of journalists jailed for their work around the world reached a new record high in 2021 with China and Belarus among the worst countries, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has warned.
According to the New York-based NGO's annual prison census released on Thursday, 293 journalists were jailed for their work over the past twelve months, up from 280 in 2020.
It also flagged that 24 journalists were killed because of their coverage and 18 others died in "circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets".
"It’s been an especially bleak year for defenders of press freedom," the CPJ said in a statement.
China remained the main offender for the third consecutive year with 50 journalists behind bars. The NGO noted that Beijing’s "relentless incarceration of journalists is not new" but that "this is the first time journalists held in Hong Kong are found on CPJ’s annual census".
Eight journalists were imprisoned in Hong Kong in 2021. This is due to the implementation of a draconian National Security Law under which "secession”, "subversion", "terrorism" and "collusion with foreign forces" incur maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
Neighbouring Myanmar, where the military junta staged a coup on February 1 following the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's party in a general election, soared to the second position.
At least 26 journalists have been jailed since the coup when none were behind bars under an elected government in 2020. They were mostly detained while covering pro-democracy protests and have been charged under "a vague anti-state provision that broadly penalises incitement and the dissemination of “false news”," the NGO said.
The charge incurs a maximum three-year prison sentence.
Egypt (25 journalists imprisoned), Vietnam (23) and Belarus round out the top five.
The eastern European country now has at least 19 reporters behind bars – up from 10 in 2020. The "brutal crackdown against the media" started after the August 2020 rigged presidential election which reinstated Alexander Lukashenko for a sixth consecutive term.
Like in Myanmar, many of the journalists were detained while covering pro-democracy protests and were initially held by the authorities without charge for up to 15 days.
Many are facing lengthy prison sentences on retaliatory and anti-state charges, such as treason.
"CPJ has documented the beatings of journalists in detention as well as the authorities’ attempts to close media outlets, block the internet, raid newsrooms, harass journalists, and keep bringing new charges against those in jail. Many journalists have been detained multiple times," it said.
"By late 2021, Belarusian authorities had closed down most prominent independent media outlets and popular social media channels, branding them "extremist"," it added.
Siarhei Satsuk, the chief editor of the online Yezhednevnik, or ej.by, outlet, is the latest journalist to have been detained following a raid at his home on Wednesday.
The rise among the top five of Myanmar and Belarus saw Turkey and Saudi Arabia slip lower but remain in the top 10, at sixth and ninth place respectively.
This is also down to the release by Ankara of 20 prisoners over the previous 12 months while Riyadh released 10 journalists from detention.
But the CPJ stressed that the releases are not "a sign of a change of heart towards the press" but that the crackdown that followed the failed coup attempt in 2016 in Turkey and the horrific murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi have had a chilling effect on the media with many journalists leaving the field in both countries.
"Turkey’s prison count is also declining as the government allows more journalists out on parole to await trial or appeal outcomes," it also stated.
Russia is the only other European country on the list with 14 journalists behind bars.