King Gyanendra of Nepal demonstrated in 2005 the full force of hatred a head of state can harbour towards the press. The Himalayan monarch, who is drawn to absolutism, was responsible for more than half of all recorded censorship cases worldwide. The royal administration censored news in the country’s many publications and on independent radio stations a total of 567 times. Journalists who resisted him by streets demonstrations and in the courts forced him to back down to some extent. This unprecedented campaign even ended in a general strike after an independent radio had its broadcast equipment seized.
The picture in Nepal typifies the struggle throughout Asia with the old demons of totalitarianism. North Korea, a graveyard for freedom, is still in the grip of numbing propaganda from its leader Kim Jong-il. In Burma, the military tries to keep everything under control by imposing relentless advance censorship. While China, a burgeoning power, keeps its journalists in a state of servitude to bias. In Laos, journalists have been turned into bureaucrats with no chance of contradicting the line of the sole ruling party.
But Asia is also a region of democracy. India is a fine example of pluralism of information. Tens of thousands of privately-owned dailies, radio and TV stations provide news for a billion inhabitants in ever greater freedom. Indonesia is also a land of freedoms, but few media yet risk in-depth investigation into the corruption that is undermining the country. New Zealand is flourishing at the head of Asian countries in the World Press Freedom Index established yearly by Reporters Without Borders, while many Australian journalists feel themselves under threat from a draft anti-terror law introduced by the government in September 2005. Journalists would be at risk of penalties of up to five years in prison if they cover a police operation or speak about the detention of a suspect under the law without permission.
In South Korea, despite a new law on newspapers that imposes a duty of “social responsibility” on the media, the government respects pluralism. In Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian has given way to the temptation to impose some controls on opposition media. But the right to inform the public on the island, threatened by a forced reunification by Beijing, remains a reality.
Journalism not welcomed
From Kabul to Bangkok, press freedom was violated in 2005 by elected leaders, incapable of accepting criticism or that the law should be paramount. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has allowed the editor of a women’s magazine to languish in jail for nearly three months, accused of blasphemy by the conservative judiciary. In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is allergic to criticism, has lodged multiple defamation suits, both criminal and civil, against independent journalists and press freedom activists. In Indonesia, the press group Tempo is being harassed by businessman Tomy Winata who is trying to obtain a hefty sum in damages.
India is gradually consolidating its position as the Asian press freedom giant. The diversity of its media, both written and broadcast, is matched by a zeal for investigative journalism. This year a privately-owned TV channel brought down around a score of deputies after trapping them in a corruption case. While the country’s 40,000 newspapers play a vital role in the exposure of abuses and social problems. However, violence in Kashmir and the north-eastern states makes work difficult for many reporters.
Its neighbour Pakistan remains attracted to control and censorship. Omnipresent military secret services continue to harass investigative journalists, while the Urdu-language press is closely watched. Under an onslaught from the Jihadists, the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has stepped up pressure on the most radical media. At the same time he has closed an FM radio accused of relaying a BBC World Service Programme on last October’s earthquake.
The Afghan press has been given a rough ride. On one side, the Taliban have stepped up attacks on the media. A young radio journalist died when he was blown up by a mine and the presenter of a religious programme was seriously injured. On the other side, the conservatives, linked to the president of the Supreme Court, hound the independent press with fatwas and threats, particularly the privately-owned Tolo TV, winner of a 2005 Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France press freedom award.
In Bangladesh, Jidahist terror has been added to the already serious existing threats. At least 55 press correspondents have been the target of harassment for articles deemed “non Islamic”. Militants of the ruling parties are not to be outdone. Engaging in threats, beatings, burnings and abusive judicial complaints, deputies and ministers will go to any lengths to silence the press.
The return of tension in Sri Lanka, where a covert state of war exists, has struck a hard blow at Tamil journalists, targets of groups both favourable and opposed to the Colombo government. Media that carry out investigations, like The Sunday Leader, have suffered constant threats and bombings.
In Bhutan, the king announced that he wanted to abdicate in favour of his son after the first democratic elections set for 2008. In the meantime, the royal administration authorised the foundation of private publications. Other kingdoms like the Sultanate of Brunei and Tonga, have little time for an independent press.
Wind of change stilled in China
China, a “cancer on the democratic body” in Asia, has piled up mass violations of freedom of expression. The political police have attacked Chinese journalists working for foreign media. Zhao Yan, 2005 Reporters Without Borders laureate, and Ching Cheong face the death penalty based on unfounded charges. President Hu Jintao and the Department of Publicity (formerly propaganda) have continued to crack down on the liberal media. After taking on the Nanfang press group in Quangdong, the communist party turned its fire on the daily Beijing News. At the same time, Internet censorship was rationalised, with the resolve to purge the web of any news of social unrest. As one editor put it: The government gives us permission to “entertain and to encourage consumption”. Despite promises to the contrary, foreign correspondents are still tightly controlled when they raise sensitive issues. Police have manhandled at least 16 of them.
Hong Kong and Macao still benefit from their special status, even thought issues considered sensitive for Beijing are avoided by a press that is mainly owned by press groups that invest elsewhere in China. The editor of an independent newspaper in Hong Kong was the victim of a mysterious murder attempt.
The press enjoys relatively good conditions in Mongolia, even though the public media are tightly controlled by the government. In Japan, freelance journalists and foreign correspondents suffer from discrimination by the “kisha” clubs.
17 journalists murdered
For the third year in succession, the Philippines, with seven murders, ranked after Iraq on the sad list of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press. Despite the arrest and conviction of some killers, particularly the police officer who murdered Edgar Damalerio in 2002, journalists are always at risk when they expose corruption or trafficking.
Similarly, in Bangladesh (2), Sri Lanka (2), Nepal (2) and Pakistan (2), press killings have been perpetuated because of a climate of impunity. In Bangladesh, two provincial correspondents for national media were murdered. In Sri Lanka, the renowned Tamil journalist Sivaram, head of the online site tamilnet.com, was murdered in Colombo in April. He knew he was under threat because of his coverage of the political-military situation. Relangi Sevaraja, presenter of a TV programme critical of the Tamil Tigers was shot down in a street in the capital. No group admitted responsibility for these murders and the police have never identified those responsible. In Nepal, the editor of a local newspaper was murdered because of his articles about businessmen. Another journalist died in prison for lack of proper medical treatment. Two reporters working for western media were killed in Pakistan in an ambush in the tribal area of South Waziristan in which the AFP correspondent was wounded. Taliban groups and the security forces blamed the other for the killings.
A constant barrage of death threats and physical attacks make life impossible for hundreds of journalists. Threats arrived by text message in the Philippines, while in Bangladesh, armed groups send duly stamped letters to journalists and press clubs. The 583 cases of physical attack and threats in Asia represented more than half the cases of this kind recorded throughout the world in 2005.
The authorities and businessmen increasingly use defamation cases to try to restore their good name after the publication of compromising investigations or to hamstring media that are too free. Less serious than violence, this new tendency in Asia is however no less a threat to the right to inform the public. In the overwhelming majority of countries, prison sentences are imposed for defamation cases. In Singapore, journalists and opposition figures live in fear of being ordered to pay swingeing amounts in damages.
Big gaps have opened up in Asia when it comes to press freedom. The continent has still not rid itself of the most authoritarian heads of state, but journalists, who are often in the front line in the fight for democracy, have this year demonstrated how much they care about their duty to keep the public informed.
2006 Asia annual report