UNITED NATIONS — The past two years have been "absolutely atrocious" for the killing and imprisonment of journalists, with Syria the deadliest place to work and Turkey the number one jailer, a press freedom advocacy group said Wednesday.
At the launch of its annual report on "Attacks on the Press," the Committee to Protect Journalists said wide-ranging government surveillance, the unchecked murder of journalists and indirect political and commercial pressures on the media are major threats to press freedom.
Joel Simon, the New York-based committee's executive director, said 2013 saw "a near record" of 211 journalists imprisoned and 70 killed — slightly fewer than 2012, when 232 journalists were in jail and 72 were killed. That's tied with the highest death toll of the Iraq war.
"The last two years have been absolutely atrocious, the worst ever in CPJ's history," Simon said. The overwhelming number of murder cases last year, or 94 percent, were committed with complete impunity, the report says.
Simon said "there is no respect whatsoever for the work of the media," with journalists being targeted and killed in crossfire, which accounts for the high death toll. He said "anti-terror" charges are the main factor in the increasing imprisonment of journalists.
According to the report, Egypt experienced the greatest deterioration in press freedom in 2013. Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Mideast and north Africa coordinator, said for the first time Egypt was among the top jailers of journalists in 2013, and it was the third deadliest country with six journalists killed.
Syria remains the most dangerous country for journalists with more than 63 killed since 2011, including 29 last year, and "an unprecedented number of kidnappings" — more than 80 since 2011 including 57 in 2013, Mansour said. CPJ has also documented more than 70 Syrian journalists forced into exile, he said.
The new report also singles out surveillance activities as a "unique threat to journalism in the digital age," after a series of revelations last year by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden angered American allies such as Germany and Brazil.
With the vast sweeping-up and storage of phone calls, tests and emails, "it could soon be possible to uncover sources with such ease as to render meaningless any promise of confidentiality a journalist may attempt to provide," the report warns.
It adds that the U.S. with its surveillance activities "has undermined its own global leadership position on free expression and Internet openness, especially when it comes to battling efforts by repressive countries like China and Iran to restrict the Internet."
More traditional threats to the media continue, the report says.
Iran remains the second major jailer of journalists, with 35 behind bars at the end of 2013, he said, and in Iraq 10 journalists were killed in the last quarter of 2013, compared to zero in 2012.
China had the third-highest number of journalists behind bars, with 32. Committee members found "particularly alarming" that the traditional safe haven of Hong Kong is coming under greater pressure from Beijing, resulting in increasing self-censorship by journalists and less aggressive reporting on mainland issues.
Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia coordinator, said "Russia and Turkey have gotten progressively more repressive for journalists" over the past year, despite Moscow's hosting of the winter Olympics.
"The current climate for freedom of press and freedom of expression ... has not been as repressive since the collapse of the Soviet Union," she said.
In Latin America, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia all ranked in the world's top 10 worst countries for fighting violence against the press. Venezuela, the report says, has been left with "no reliably independent and critical broadcaster."
Mohamed Keita, CPJ's Africa coordinator, said "a great press freedom crisis" also persists in Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and Gambia, and "there are alarming trends or backsliding in countries that are relatively democratic such as Tanzania, Zambia, Liberia, Kenya and even South Africa."