The Asian dictatorships have not lowered their guard. More than 200 journalists were detained in Asia, making it by far the world’s biggest prison for the press. Imprisonment was the punishment reserved by the communist regimes and Burma’s military dictatorship for journalists who called for free expression and condemned tyranny. There were also many arrests in countries that claim to be democratic.
Prison conditions were deplorable and torture was common practice. In Nepal, journalists were subjected to such torture as repeated violent blows to the soles of the feet, forced submersion in water and electric shock (especially to the genitals). Some were forced to spend weeks with a hood over their head and face. In all, the Nepalese security forces arrested, detained in undisclosed locations, tortured or threatened about 100 journalists in 2003. In Pakistan, intelligence agents tortured Khawar Mehdi Rizvi because of a report from the border with Afghanistan. In Burma, journalists are tortured during their first weeks in prison. Thereafter, they are held in terrible conditions, like thousands of other prisoners of conscience. The UN special rapporteur on Burma spoke of the "hell" of Burmese detention centres after visiting Insein prison.
Three journalists were condemned to death in 2003. In Afghanistan, the editor of an independent weekly and one of his journalists were the object of a religious fatwa after calling for a secular political system. Zaw Thet Htwe, the editor of a newspaper specialising in football, was condemned to death by a Burmese military court on the trumped-up charge of "attempted assassination of military junta leaders." Meanwhile in Pakistan, editor Rehmat Shah Afridi has been in prison in Lahore for several years after being condemned to death at the end of a rigged trial.
North Korea has absolutely no press diversity. All the news media there are given over to the cult of Kim Jong Il’s personality.
A news media boom was accompanied by more violence against journalists. India has seen record growth in TV and radio stations. Independent media, especially electronic media, are expanding quickly in Asia. But journalists who are bolder and adopt modern news standards are more likely to be the target of threats and violence. In a new development, there was an increase in physical attacks on journalists in China by local officials, private security guards and criminals in response to enquiries by reporters seeking exclusives in an increasingly competitive media environment.
Sixteen journalists murdered
Seven journalists, mostly reporters or commentators with local radio stations, were murdered by contract killers in the Philippines in 2003, above all in the southern island of Mindanao. The toll could have been much worse - no fewer than five other journalists escaped murder attempts. Impunity encouraged the violence against the press, which had not reached this level since 1987.
A total of at least 16 journalists were killed while doing their job in Asia in 2003. Reporters Without Borders was continuing to investigate some 15 other cases. It was often hard to establish the exact reasons for murders in which journalism, politics and personal matters overlapped. A freelance journalist was killed in Japan, probably because of his investigations into Chinese criminal organisations. The presenter of a royalist radio station was gunned down in Cambodia. He was one of the victims of a wave of killings of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s opponents. The ever-obliging police made no effort to arrest the killers or identify the instigators.
Armed separatist struggles also caused losses in the ranks of the press. Two journalists were killed in India because of their coverage of the Kashmir conflict. One of them, the editor of a local news agency, was murdered in his office. A third journalist was kidnapped in the northeastern region of Assam by rebels who reportedly executed him.
A TV cameraman and a reporter were killed in the war which the Indonesian army resumed in Aceh in 2003. The reporter, Ersa Siregar was killed by army fire while still held by the rebel separatists who had taken him prisoner six months earlier. In Burma, a photographer linked to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) was killed by the regime’s thugs during an attack on the motorcade of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May.
At least 600 journalists were physically attacked or threatened in 2003. The level of violence rose again in Bangladesh to more than 200 cases of physical attacks or death threats against journalists by political activists, especially from the ruling party, or criminals. This undermined the ability of the press to freely cover key issues such as human rights violations, corruption and the collusion between politicians and organised crime. Although freed from the Taliban straitjacket, Afghan journalists still had to face threats from the thugs of the warlords. Some 10 independent journalists were threatened with reprisals by Afghan conservatives during a period of political tension in March and April. In Nepal, provincial journalists in particular had to endure threats from both security forces and Maoist rebels.
The scourge of censorship
More than 190 news media were hit by censorship. Governments and courts had an impressive arsenal at their disposal, one reinforced in some 10 countries by anti-terrorist laws passed after 11 September 2001 that provided for sanctions against media found guilty of putting out reports deemed subversive or threatening to state security. The propaganda department in China did not bother with the law. Journalists who created trouble, especially journalists with the liberal press groups in southern China, were simply removed from the posts. This was how the central government banned the press from covering the SARS epidemic in the first months of 2003.
Afghanistan’s supreme court, a conservative bastion, banned foreign TV channels. Indonesia’s army used martial law to impose a news blackout on the war in Aceh province. As a result, a local weekly had to close following threats against its editor.
The airwaves also scare dictatorships. North Korea branded foreign radio stations with Korean-language programming as "enemies in the pay of the imperialists." China continued to jam the Chinese-language services of the BBC World Service and Radio Free Asia. Chinese Internet users were denied access to the websites of these news media, as well as those of many other organisations.
One of the worst pieces of news in 2003 came from Thailand, where Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did his best to silence critical voices with the help of the army, which owns many electronic media. The quality of the Thai press nonetheless continued to be much better than that of its neighbours, especially Laos and Burma which could be mistaken for a parody of propaganda media. Some 10 privately-owned magazines tried to inform the public in Burma, but had to cope with prior censorship by the military authorities. Taiwan meanwhile continued its steady consolidation as one of Asia’s leading countries as regards press freedom.
The conservative ideology of "Asian values," which exclude press freedom, were applied with varying degrees of determination in Malaysia, Singapore and the Sultanate of Brunei. The media in these countries can talk fairly freely about the international or economic situation but sensitive domestic political issues are banned. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives, who was re-elected with 90.28 per cent of the vote in October, had little patience with press criticism.
Defying international criticism, the government and major news media in Japan continued to maintain the system of kisha clubs (press clubs) which exclude foreign and freelance journalists from access to government sources. In South Korea, President Roh Moo Hyun constantly criticised the conservative media but did not introduce any restrictive measures against the main conservative dailies.
In the Pacific, press freedom received a rough ride from the king of Tonga, who amended the constitution so that he could ban the only independent weekly for good. The conservative government in Australia continued to prevent journalists from covering the situation of refugees held in camps on Australian territory or in neighbouring countries.
The growth of community radio and FM stations was a positive development for press freedom in Asia. These radio stations enabled millions of listeners in India, Indonesia and Thailand to keep informed and express their views freely.
Vincent Brossel, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia desk