The year 2004 was horribly similar to the year that preceded it. North Korea kept an iron grip on its journalists, reduced to a pathetic role as propagandists. Nepal and Bangladesh slid a little further into daily brutality while China and Vietnam tightened their control of news and information. The military dictatorships, chiefly the Rangoon junta, continued to crack down on opposition journalists. Democratic countries seized on the pretext of the fight against terrorism to justify attacks on press freedom.
Sixteen of the 53 journalists killed in 2004 died in Asia. After Iraq, the Philippines (six killed) and Bangladesh (four) are the world’s most dangerous countries for the profession. In the Philippines, where press freedom flourishes more than almost anywhere on the continent, hired killers targeted radio and local newspaper journalists on the orders of corrupt local politicians. Under pressure, the government set up a task force to investigate the murders. In Bangladesh, the south-western region of Khulna, which is infested with Maoist armed gangs, is a kind of hell for the independent press. Three journalists were killed in cold blood, accused of being "class enemies". Police arrested suspects but turned out to be incapable of completing their investigations and taking them before the courts.
Violence is a daily reality for hundreds of journalists in Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under threat from armed men or security forces, these reporters, most of them provincial correspondents for national media, are often very isolated and unable to stand up to local potentates. During 2004, there was a physical attack on a journalist every two days on average in Bangladesh. Maoists in Nepal threatened dozens of journalists and cut the throat of a public radio correspondent while the army made unauthorised arrests of reporters accused of complicity with the rebels.
In Sri Lanka, where a ceasefire is holding a fragile balance between the government and the Tamil Tigers, journalists, particularly in the east of the country, have fallen victim to clashes between Tamil factions. Two of them were killed and some 20 others have received death threats. Some have been forced into exile.
Forty-six of the world’s 104 imprisoned journalists as at 1st January 2005 were in Asia. China holds 27 behind bars, police arresting 17 of them during 2004, including Zhao Yan, working with the US daily New York Times, who in October was charged with "divulging state secrets". He faces the death penalty. Security services in Burma continued to harass or arrest journalists suspected of criticism of the military or of being close to the opposition. The best known of them, Win Tin, began his 15th year in prison. Finally, in Nepal, the army questioned or arrested more than 400 journalists. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists successfully negotiated the release of around a dozen of them. Often kidnapped by the security forces they were secretly held and ill-treated.
Away from the cameras
China’s rise as an international power has had negative effects for press freedom. Neighbouring governments have shown themselves increasingly unable to defend the rights of their journalists. Despite pleas from diplomats in Seoul, two freelance South Korean journalists were imprisoned for months for covering the plight of North Korean refugees in China. Generally, democratic governments have been squeamish about criticising the communist regime despite the fact that it allows very little freedom to Beijing-based foreign correspondents. Public security watches closely and does not hesitate to arrest, threaten or beat those who breach the sacrosanct "Guide for correspondents working in China". In February, police in Beijing arrested a crew working for France 2 television after they filmed without permission poultry being immunised during a bird flu epidemic. Before releasing them, police forced them to sign a document in which they acknowledged they had been "filming secretly".
Pakistani, Indonesian and Chinese governments have closed off entire swaths of territory to the press during military operations against "terrorists". Tribal areas such as South Waziristan have been sealed off since March, preventing local and foreign journalists from covering a massive operation against the Taliban and al-Qaida that has left many civilian casualties. At the same time, the Indonesian army continued its offensive in Aceh away from the cameras. The local press has been made to toe the line and foreign journalists have been banned from visiting. Crackdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet were also carried out without unwanted witnesses.
The first priority for journalists in North Korea, indoctrinated by the party, is to sing the praises of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. Some have been sent to re-education camps after misspelling a leading political figure’s name or expressing doubt about party policies. In Burma, the junta has allowed a small private press to exist, but the Censorship Bureau applies relentless advance censorship.
Democrats tempted by interventionism
Asian democracies have justified attacks on press freedom by the "anti-terrorist struggle". Australia adopted new security measures allowing its secret services to monitor communications, including those of journalists. John Howard’s government also prevented the press from freely covering the plight of asylum seekers held in centres.
Traditional media in Japan showed complacency about their country’s involvement in Iraq. Moreover, a controversial law on protection of private life, adopted in May 2003, led to a temporary ban on a weekly that carried an article on the daughter of a parliamentary deputy. In South Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun had a new press law passed that tried to limit the influence of the three major conservative dailies that criticise his government. The law was amended under opposition pressure, but remains an obstruction to free enterprise.
The populism of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and conflict in the south of the country had a negative impact on press freedom in Thaïland. At least three journalists were dismissed under political pressure. And the army, embarrassed by media reports on the massacre of Muslims in the south, obstructed press work and harassed a journalist from the BBC World Service.
On the other hand, in India, the new government of Manmohan Singh revoked a controversial anti-terror law and extremist Hindus hostile to the press did not enjoy the same degree of impunity as under the previous regime. Privately-owned media are however very well established in the world’s largest democracy and journalists are quick to defend themselves when their rights are threatened.
The peace process between India and Pakistan allowed a group of Pakistani reporters to visit the disputed province of Kashmir for the first time in more than 50 years. But the authorities in Islamabad continued to refuse visas to some Indian journalist, including in September when they applied to cover a cricket match...
Censorship at every level
In Asia, where so many people are illiterate, radio is extremely popular. This means a headache for authoritarian regimes, since the programmes put out by international radio such as BBC World Service and Radio France Internationale contrast so favourably with the turgid fare broadcast by the state-owned media. Kim Jong-il announced in June that undeclared radios were the "new enemies of the regime". In North Korea, radio and television are set to the frequencies of the public media. Anyone listening to foreign radio stations risks going to jail. In China, the regime has been building up a "great wall of sound" to scramble broadcasts with the help of the French company Thalès. The Mandarin-language programmes on Radio Free Asia and in Tibetan on Voice of Tibet are becoming more and more difficult to pick up.
The censors have also been targeting news websites. In March, Beijing blocked the Chinese-language web pages of the US daily Wall Street Journal and German radio Deutsche Welle. In Pakistan, the site satribune.com, specialising in reports on corruption within the Pervez Musharraf regime, is difficult to access.
Wound up by the US press group Dow Jones, the renowned Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) disappeared from news-stands in November. This magazine of record embarrassed governments. The FEER was regularly censored in Singapore, Vietnam and in Malaysia. Several of its journalists have been imprisoned or expelled because of uncompromising reporting. On the other hand, Western media have strengthened their presence in China, new eldorado for the advertising market. TV channels, including those run by the Murdoch group, or websites like Yahoo and Google, agreed to self-censorship to penetrate this gigantic market.