2007 Asia Annual Report
Has there been any improvement in press freedom in Asia in 2006? The very high numbers of journalists still being killed or assaulted and numbers of media censored would suggest not. However, Asians now have access to more independent and better quality news. A score of military or communist dictatorships view the media simply as channels for relaying propaganda. But, in 2006, authoritarian regimes, particularly that of King Gyanendra in Nepal, were swept away by democratic revolutions.
Press freedom violations in Asia are still at alarming levels: Sixteen journalists were killed, at least 328 arrested, 517 physically assaulted or threatened and at least 478 media were censored in 2006.
These disturbing figures are paradoxically signs of greater freedom. For example, journalists in Bangladesh suffer constant assaults and death threats because they tirelessly expose nepotism and corruption among local politicians. In China, the propaganda department regularly removes editorial chiefs in an attempt to curb their desire for independence.
In Asia, it is not war that is responsible for the deaths of journalists. In the Philippines for instance, where six were killed during the year, it was local public figures who put the lives of journalists in danger. It is the same story in India, China and Indonesia, where five journalists were murdered. However, in Sri Lanka, media representatives are, along with thousands of other civilians, the innocent victims of a war which is stoked up by the government and the Tamil Tigers. The para-military Tamil groups have sown terror in the north and east, killing four journalists and attacking around a dozen media.
Censorship, an "Asian custom"
Censorship remains a very widespread phenomenon in Asia. At its extreme end is North Korea where the “dear leader” Kim Jong-il and his loyal inner circle impose total control on news content. Journalists, who are under police surveillance and the threat of re-education, have no choice but to relay grotesque official propaganda. To a lesser extent, the other communist regimes, Laos, Vietnam and China, use the press to put over the message of the sole party. But quite often, media more dependant on advertising than on state subsidy, take the risk of handling previously taboo subjects. Some liberal publications in China and Vietnam have breached state control entirely. But the party still knows how to set limits. At the start of the year, the Chinese propaganda department removed renowned journalist Li Datong from the editorship of the weekly Bing Dian. Among other things, he had authorised publication of an article taking a fresh look at a controversial period in Chinese history. In Vietnam, the information ministry suspended at least five publications within a few days after articles appeared on scandals implicating family members of a prominent figure in the regime.
The junta in Burma imposes relentless advance censorship on the Burmese press. At times more than a third of the articles and illustrations in privately-owned publications are banned by army officers employed by the censorship bureau. Any item containing the least reference to democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi is banned. There is no permanent censorship in Thailand, but hundreds of local radios have been closed by the military junta which overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September.
News is also controlled through financial leverage exerted by investors close to the authorities. In Singapore and Malaysia, the authorities only award licences to press groups of whose loyalty they are assured. Former members of the security services head the leading privately-owned publications in Singapore.
Religion is also a source of censorship and self-censorship. Criticism of the religious authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan can lead to a blasphemy suit. A score of media have also been sanctioned in Asia for having reproduced or referred to the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published in Denmark. Upholding morals is also a favourite reason for censorship in Asia. A TV channel in Kabul was heavily fined for showing Indian films seen as contrary to Islam. In December, law suits were taken out against eight Indonesian stations for showing too much “sex” and “violence”. In the same country, the editor of the local version of the magazine Playboy was taken to court. And authorities in Sri Lanka closed a radio station because it talked about sexuality.
Asian monarchs also know how to impose censorship on news about themselves. The crime of “lese majesty” is punishable in Thailand by several years in prison. A Bangkok press baron narrowly escaped prison in 2006 after being accused of insulting the king. In Bhutan, the media, only one of which is privately-owned, are obliged to speak about the king in the most respectful terms. Finally, in Brunei, the sultan and his family are almost systematically featured on the front pages of the press and criticism is extremely rare.
There are very few Asian countries which allow absolutely anything to be said or written. Even in South Korea, a favourable position towards their northern neighbour is liable to mean a prison sentence. It is not easy to speak freely about organised crime or violent nationalist groups in Japan. New Zealand is in this context a successful example of virtually total respect for press freedom.
Signs of hope
There are some genuinely hopeful signs on the continent. The development of privately-owned TV channels brings news free from government control into hundreds of millions of homes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and India. Breaking decades of state monopoly on broadcast news, Geo TV in Pakistan, Tolo TV in Afghanistan, Phoenix TV in China or CNN-IBN in India, have pushed back the boundaries of censorship. Some countries are resisting this progress. The Maldives government has failed to honour a promise to open up the electronic media sector before the end of the year. And in Burma, the army bans people from watching independent DVB TV, broadcast by satellite from Norway.
The number of journalists imprisoned in Asia is down overall. Detention centres in Nepal were emptied after the democratic revolution in April. Those in Burma hold fewer and fewer journalists, even if U Win Tin, laureate of the 2006 Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France press freedom prize, is still serving a 20-year sentence for his pro-democracy articles. China has freed Jiang Weiping and Gao Qinrong, given heavy prison sentences for writing articles about corruption and no journalist arrested in 2006 was held in custody.
However governments in Asia still have a number of laws at their disposal which allow them to imprison journalists for press offences. This year, only Cambodia made the courageous decision to decriminalise defamation. Indonesia, for its part, has lifted the offence of insulting the head of state, which was used against journalists in the past. On the other hand, governments in Manila and Dhaka have done nothing to prevent a raft of abusive defamation cases being brought against the press. In the Philippines, the husband of the president, Gloria Arroyo, has taken out more than 40 law suits against privately-owned media. In reply, journalists’ organisations are claiming a peso per inhabitant in damages.
Asia’s two heavyweights, India and China, have chosen a radically different model of press freedom. In the first, the media make themselves felt more every day as an effective counter-balance to government, capable of exposing even the most powerful. In the second, the press, although subject to competition, is still under the control of the party-state which is sure of its authority and which has no intention of dropping its capacity to censor.