The Asia-Pacific region had more censorship and more journalists killed, attacked, threatened, arrested and imprisoned than any other part of the world.
Aside from the figures, it was the number of dictatorial or totalitarian regimes, especially communist ones, that distinguished Asia. In the first worldwide ranking of press freedom published by Reporters Without Borders in November 2002, Asian countries held four of the five last places. North Korea was, of course, at the very bottom. There was absolutely no form of press pluralism in this bastion of Stalinism, where all the news media were focussed on the personality cult of Kim Jong-il. In China, Laos and Vietnam, the population was also deprived of independent information by communist, one-party regimes that tolerated no organised dissent. Other regimes such as Burma’s military dictatorship, Bhutan’s absolute monarchy and Singapore’s police state left almost no leeway for independent journalists.
With 11 journalists killed, Asia was again the world’s most dangerous continent for the press. Most of them were killed in Asia’s democratic countries. Two reporters were killed in India, one of them for investigating a sect’s activities. The southern Philippines, especially Mindanao island, was once again one of the most dangerous zones in the world for the press. Three journalists were killed and three were kidnapped there. The case of reporter Edgar Damalerio, known for investigating corruption, exemplified the climate in which independent journalists worked. He was murdered by a policeman at the behest of the local police chief. Both men were relieved of their duties but were not prosecuted. In Bangladesh, two journalists were killed in the south by members of a banned extreme-left movement.
As elsewhere in the world, most of the killings of journalists were the work of armed groups or criminal gangs. Nonetheless, the police were directly implicated in the death under torture of pro-Maoist journalist Krishna Sen in Nepal, even if they still refused to recognise it. In Pakistan, the abduction and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl was indeed the work of radical Islamist militants seeking revenge on a western reporter. Some saw the stamp of Pakistani intelligence agencies linked with pro-jihad groups but the trial, from which journalists were excluded, concluded with the conviction of Pakistani Islamist militant Sheikh Omar and his accomplices.
Regional tension and civil wars in Southern Asia threatened the freedoms acquired over the last decade. In Nepal, the war between the Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoist rebels had unprecedented repercussions for the press. More than 100 journalists were arrested on accusations of supporting or covering the activities of the rebels. More seriously still, the security forces made wide use of torture and kept dozens of journalists in detention without proof and without bringing them to trial. Fiercely opposed to press pluralism, the Maoists for their part killed at least one reporter and kidnapped three others. In Bangladesh, the recurring political violence was a considerable obstacle to the work of journalists, especially the provincial correspondents of the dozens of national dailies. With at least 250 journalists physically attacked or threatened with death, two reporters murdered, 20 newspaper offices or press clubs attacked and 25 journalists detained by the authorities in 2002, Bangladesh was by far the world’s most violent country for journalists. "Not a day goes by without the press reporting an attack or death threat against a journalist," an editor based in the capital said. As a result, it became impossible to write freely about corruption, criminal gangs or religious intolerance.
The tension between Pakistan and India over Kashmir gave both governments a pretext for harassing their most critical journalists, especially those investigating sensitive subjects. In India, a Kashmiri journalist spend more than six months in prison because of his articles on Indian policy toward Kashmir, while the police cracked down on the news website Tehelka.com at the behest of the nationalist government. In Pakistan, it was the investigative journalists, especially those with the English-language dailies, who bore the brunt of the threats of the security services. The best known of these journalists, Shaheen Sehbai, went into exile and launched a website that was quickly banned by the government in Islamabad.
The good news in Southern Asia came from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The cease-fire between the government forces and Tamil rebels and the ensuing peace process allowed Sri Lankan journalists to work more freely, especially by giving them access to the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers. The liberal government also repealed an archaic law that allowed journalists to be imprisoned for defamation and relaunched the enquiry into the death in 2000 of journalist Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan. In Kabul, more than a hundred publications appeared and several international radio stations were able to broadcast on FM frequencies, but in the rest of Afghanistan, the warlords and conservatives tried to prevent any similar blossoming of media.
South-East Asia was still just as polarised in terms of press freedom. The communist dictatorships of Vietnam and Laos were on a par with Burma’s military junta. More journalists were behind bars in Burma: a total of 16 including 72-year-old Win Tin. But Laos left absolutely no room for independent news. The same articles could be found in all the Laotian newspapers, some of them written by information ministry officials, and most journalists belonged to the one party. Competition between the different news media resulted in more diverse news reporting in Vietnam but the communist party kept a close watch. On the occasion of Revolutionary Press Day in June, an official newspaper said the party would "never" allow privately-owned news media because without party and state control, the media would cease to be "by the people and for the people." Three journalists and three cyber-dissidents were detained in Vietnam.
On the other hand, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia continued to enjoy real press freedom. The attempts of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, an Asian "Berlusconi," to silence the most critical Thai and foreign journalists were resisted by the privately-owned news groups publishing in both English and Thai. In the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo’s government was tempted to bring the most radical news media into line with its fight against communist and Islamist terrorists and there was concern about several anti-terrorism laws being drafted that could threaten the confidentiality of sources and information. Indonesia did not take the step backwards that was feared with Megawati Sukarnoputri as president. She criticised the independent press, as did the army and the political class as a whole, but there was no substantive harassment. However, Indonesian and foreign journalists continued to have great difficulty working in such troubled provinces as Aceh, Papua and Moluccas.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei kept up a constant pressure that prevented an independent press from emerging. Repressive laws such as the internal security act in Malaysia or a policy of systematic censorship enabled the regimes led by Mahathir Mohamad and Goh Chok Tong to maintain "Asian values" and dispel any notion of one party replacing another in power by means of elections.
East Asia remained unchanged. The Chinese regime was busy organising the party congress that endorsed the transition from President Jiang Zemin to President Hu Jintao, and had no room for news freed from the constraints of orthodoxy. In June, the government addressed a 32-point memorandum to the main news media defending the line of the Chinese Communist Party on news reporting. The media were required to promote a "suitable climate" in the run-up to the congress and sensitive subjects such as privatisation or class conflict were banned. Eleven journalists were still detained, some of whom had been held for more than 10 years. The police cracked down on cyber-dissidents and at least 35 of them were being held at the end of 2002.
South Korea maintained its commitment to press freedom. But in Japan, the government refused to reform the system of kisha clubs (press clubs), which restricts the access to information of foreign journalists and independent Japanese journalists. The Japanese authorities so far also turned a deaf ear to the criticism voiced this year by the European Union about the system, which obstructs the free flow of information and drags the media down.
Finally, press freedom got a softer ride in the Pacific region, even if the monarchies, such as Tonga’s, made life tough for the embryonic privately-owned media. In Australia, the conservative government tried to prevent journalists from covering the situation of refugees parked in camps on its own territory or in neighbouring countries.