In 2001, the Asia-Pacific region had the worst results in the world for press freedom violations: the largest number of journalists killed, imprisoned, threatened and attacked, and the largest number of countries where the right to pluralist information is not guaranteed.
The coverage of the war in Afghanistan, the largest assembly of international media since the Gulf War, cost the lives of eight reporters. But beyond that, Asia has two of the world’s largest prisons for journalists: China, where at least 14 journalists and 22 cyber-dissidents are jailed, and Burma, where 18 opposition journalists are waiting for possible release in insalubrious prisons. In Bangladesh, more than 150 journalists were attacked or threatened with death by political activists, local organised crime syndicates and police. Finally, in six Asian countries, including Laos and Vietnam, single party governments refuse pluralist information.
Covering a war is a very dangerous activity for journalists. In Afghanistan, eight war reporters lost their lives. In the southern Philippines, two reporters died at the hands of security forces or Islamist guerrillas who have been fighting each other for several decades. But some journalists also pay for the news they report. The Chinese journalist Feng Zhaoxia, found with his throat slit, did not commit suicide as the authorities suggest. He was undoubtedly killed for the stories he wrote about local organised crime. This case, unique in China, raises the question of impunity. In Asia, as in the rest of the world, police and the courts show little motivation to investigate the murders of journalists. In Sri Lanka, political authorities have made no effort to find the murderer of the Tamil journalist Nimalarajan. In Indonesia, those in power have blocked the trial of the murderers of Dutch reporter Sander Thoenes, who was killed in East Timor in 1999. Finally, in the Philippines, police investigations are botched and the enquiry into the murder of Candelario "Jun" Cayona, on Mindanao Island, suggests police or army complicity in this affair.
The good news of 2001 was the fall of the Taliban regime, a predator of press freedom, after American bombings and attacks by anti-Taliban forces. Yet, before collapsing, the government led by Mullah Omar arrested six foreign reporters suspected of spying, banned the Internet and the BBC, and imprisoned two journalists working with an official magazine. Declarations favourable to freedom of expression made by interim President Hamid Karzai, in power since December, stand out in sharp contrast to the totalitarian conception the Taliban had of the right to information. With support from the international community, an independent Afghan press may finally see the light after decades of oppression.
In some Asian countries, the press fulfils its role in the balance of power. In India, the investigative web site tehelka.com revealed a bribery affair which caused the Minister of Defence and the president of the party in power to resign. Nevertheless, the press faces many hurdles in Asian democracies. In Japan, kisha clubs, a system that favours journalists with the country’s dominant media, block pluralist information. Authorities and the media do not seem ready to abolish this archaic system. In Taiwan, some important media are still controlled by political groups, especially by the nationalist Kuomintang Party. The same is true in South Korea, where the three largest newspapers are controlled by families with close ties to the opposition conservative party. This year, the upcoming general elections, which will be hotly disputed, have incited the government of President Kim Dae Jung to audit these media that are too critical of him.
Journalists also have their share of responsibility for the bad image of the press in Asia. The practice of "envelopes", blackmail and self-censorship are unfortunately very common in many countries. But even more serious, jihadist publications in Pakistan and Indonesia openly support radical movements which are fighting an armed struggle against the "unfaithful".
Some governments still see the foreign press as a danger, and close off entire regions to reporters. The few journalists who were able to travel to North Korea in 2001 were constantly accompanied by guides whose task was to prevent them from straying from their official programme. In many countries, authorities impose drastic restrictions which make it impossible for journalists to investigate when travelling with a press visa. In Vietnam, Burma, and in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh or Western Papua, reporters have to travel with tourist visas and be wary of the omnipresent security forces. And in China, this year again, international correspondents were prevented from freely covering the AIDS epidemic in Henan, activities of the Falungong spiritual movement, dissidence, accidents in mines, and the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet. This war of attrition between foreign journalists and Chinese authorities also affects some Chinese journalists doing their best to cover subjects forbidden by the Party.
In South Asia, press freedom has been tragically affected by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Nepal and the political violence in Bangladesh. In Nepal, the government, fighting against the Maoist Party, arrested some 40 reporters. Those working for publications favourable to the Maoist movement are imprisoned according to the country’s antiterrorist law. In Bangladesh, activists with the new coalition in power (the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party and fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami) have taken over from the followers of the Awami League, defeated in the October elections, to lash out against journalists in their turn. In January, a young reporter had both legs and both arms broken in an attack ordered by a Member of Parliament. In April, a correspondent with one of the country’s leading newspapers had a leg amputated after surviving a murder attempt.
In South-East Asia, in the three countries where press freedom is truly respected, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, the situation deteriorated in 2001. In Thailand, the new Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and those close to power, renewed state interventionism in the media. Journalists of both the private and public press have been under direct and indirect pressure from the government of this "Asian Berlusconi", known for not accepting criticism. As in the Philippines, two Thai journalists were killed. In Indonesia, journalists were targeted by radical political activists, separatist movements and the army. The government’s tolerance could diminish with the arrival of Megawati Sukarnoputri as President. She has already recreated the Ministry of Information, which orchestrated the repression of the press during the Suharto regime. Some people close to power declare that the press has too much freedom and that it would be a good thing to limit it. 2002 could be a very dangerous year in this country.
Nevertheless, the situation for journalists in those three countries is far from being as serious as it is in the rest of ASEAN countries. In Burma, Laos and Vietnam, there is no pluralism. In the two Communist dictatorships of Hanoi and Vientiane, all media belong to the state. In 2001, these two regimes even reinforced their laws to better repress the press. In Burma, while there are some 100 private publications, they are closely watched by the censorship office. Newspapers, radio and television are owned by the military. Finally, in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, the authoritarian regimes and restrictive press laws prevent the emergence of independent media. All this in the name of "Asian values".
In East Asia, the Chinese regime, its prestige restored by its membership in the World Trade Organisation and the granting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, reinforced its control over the media, especially regional publications. Just before a decisive Communist Party Congress, during which Jiang Zemin is expected to retire, the country’s propaganda departments sanctioned publications considered to be too liberal or too Marxist. The Pyongyang regime, a protégé of Beijing, has not given any encouraging signs toward freedom of expression either.
In the Pacific zone, press continues its development with certain constraints. The authorities have trouble accepting criticism from the private press or foreign reporters. Michael Field of Agence France-Presse was banned from covering the 16-nation South Pacific Summit by the government of Nauru. He had investigated money laundering in this tiny Pacific state.
Fortunately, the Internet allows independent information to circulate freely. Even though repression against cyber-dissidents in China has been severe (16 of them were arrested in 2001), the rest of Asia has benefited from the development of the Internet.
In India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, web sites run by independent journalists break down the wall of censorship and rehabilitate investigative journalism.