“I was in a solitary cell for five days, only allowed one hour in the courtyard. You could go crazy after a while,” Asli Erdoğan wrote of her time in a Turkish jail. “I spent 48 hours without water when I first arrived. I was in shock, which worked a bit like an anesthetic.”
Erdoğan, a Turkish writer/journalist, was arrested for terrorist propaganda in 2016. Wordsmiths, like Erdoğan, have a hard time expressing opinions in their own country, let alone a foreign one.
Journalists can incur the wrath of the public by investigating events, writing less-than popular opinion pieces or by criticizing the wrong people. Reporters travel the world to cover events and interesting topics, like a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse or a civil war in Syria. It’s a sad fact of life that they aren’t always safe while working overseas.
Press Rights are Important for Freedom
While journalists from all backgrounds are subjected to scrutiny, those from the United States get to enjoy certain freedoms which others may not. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlines the freedom of the press. This amendment essentially allows U.S. citizens to write about any subject without fear of imprisonment, though that is not always true.
Founding fathers of the U.S., James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, started the National Gazette to criticize officials and their newly-formed government. Freedom of the press has been essential since the founding of the United States and continues to be pertinent to the American way of life. While Americans may be able to criticize their government and live without fear, doing the same in other countries can carry significant consequences. However, the rest of the world isn’t only worse-off compared to America.
Though the U.S. has freedom of the press, it isn’t even in the top ten countries with the most press freedom. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Jamaica, Belgium, New Zealand, Denmark and Costa Rica make up the top ten countries with the best freedom of press laws. The United States sits at 45 in 2018, which is a decrease from 43rd place in 2017. China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea are the bottom five countries with the worst freedom of press laws.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there are currently four imprisoned journalists and 36 who have been attacked here in the U.S. These figures are small potatoes compared to Turkey’s 73 imprisoned journalists and China’s 41. So while we may not be the best, we’re far from being the worst.
Turkey has Largest Number of Imprisoned Journalists
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule has been problematic for journalists as well as academics, elected government officials and human rights workers.
According to IRIN, “50,000 people have been jailed for suspected ties to the attempted takeover.”
A coup was started in July 2016 which resulted in mass imprisonments and overcrowded prisons. Journalists, like Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan, have been jailed for allegedly sending concealed messages to those who participated in the attempt to overthrow Erdoğan. The brothers face the possibility of life in prison.
“Allegations of torture and mistreatment in prisons have also increased over the last year. Prisoners have reported being held in stress positions over prolonged periods, while also being subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings, sexual abuse, and threats of rape,” wrote IRIN staff.
Agencies in charge of the oversight of prison conditions have been disbanded since the coup, which has allowed the Turkish prison administrations and guards to operate without constraint.
Turkish political prisoners are reported to be treated more harshly than other prisoners since Erdogan became president. They are often transferred to prisons far from their family and court proceedings, thus weakening their resolve and defense.
Sometimes journalists aren’t subjected to hard-time while abroad, only to experience horrifying treatment within their home countries.
Journalists experience hard-time abroad
American journalists do have a hard-time abroad and face comparatively little resistance within the U.S. When American journalists are captured or arrested, it is widely-broadcast across the country.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two journalists from the United States, were arrested in North Korea in 2009. The duo was accused of entering the country illegally in March 2009 and later found guilty. Lee and Ling were on assignment reporting about North Korean women being trafficked out of the country.
According to an Associated Press article, “The Central Court in Pyongyang sentenced each to 12 years of ‘reform through labor’ in a North Korean prison after a five-day trial, KCNA said in a terse, two-line report that provided no further details. A Korean-language version said they were convicted of ‘hostility toward the Korean people.’”
North Korea is vastly different from every other country in the world as their leader, Kim Jong-Un, is fiercely private about the way their country works. The borders are heavily guarded, and all punishments are severe.
Lim Hye-jin, a former North Korean prison guard, described the inner workings of the North Korean prison system in The Daily Mail. If found guilty of some crime, the punishment is often hard labor. Within the prison, prisoners are often beaten, tortured, raped or killed. Punishments can be collective, as to warn other inmates not to repeat anything perceived as wrongdoing. Hye-jin said most guards did not see prisoners as people and treated them horrendously.
While Lee and Ling were released before being sent to a hard labor camp, they could have faced similar punishments. Not only do journalists face a hard-time abroad, tourists can as well, in cases like Otto Warmbier’s and Kenneth Bae’s.
Reuters journalists jailed for archaic law
Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone are two journalists working for Reuters, an international news agency. The pair are from Myanmar and cover controversial issues within the country.
In December 2017, Soe Oo and Lone, were investigating the massacre of Rohingya villagers in the Rakhine state at the hands of the Myanmar military. The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group and predominantly practice Islam in a largely Buddhist country.
The two journalists met police for a meal after which they were arrested on suspicion of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, due to their possession of information about the Rakhine state. They pleaded not guilty and were held in custody for more than 300 days.
After suspicious happenings throughout the proceedings by officials, the Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison on Sept. 3. There has been no information to where they are or how they will be detained.
Myanmar’s most notorious jail for political prisoners, Insein, is widely-known for its torture and inhumane treatment of inmates.
A former inmate, Philip Blackwood, was in Insein for more than a year. At the beginning of his sentence, he was kept in a small cell with no windows and a hole leading to an open sewer for a toilet. Blackwood endured a hard-time abroad and lived through a nightmare of less-than livable conditions in a prison known for its inhumanity.
For a free world to prosper, there must be freedom of press. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.”
Journalism itself faces a hard-time abroad in countries that oppress voices critical of power. Reading and writing contribute to societies by offering alternative perspectives, whether it be a first-person account of a war zone or retelling tales of an elderly person’s youth. These alternative perspectives must be protected in order for humanity to progress.
Freedom of speech has been restricted in every country across the world at some point in history, and the free-thinkers are always the persecuted.