A year of crises. What impact on press freedom ?
Asia-Pacific - Annual report 2008
The Asian continent turned into a battlefield for journalists in 2007, with 17 killed during the year and nearly 600 assaulted or faced with death threats. In Pakistan alone, security forces arrested 250 reporters, frequently clubbing them first, for covering marches organised against President Pervez Musharraf or at their own demonstrations against restrictions imposed on them under the state of emergency. In Sri Lanka, several senior figures on the Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan lived holed up at their offices for fear of being gunned down in the streets of Jaffna where paramilitaries have sown terror. In Burma, soldiers ordered to restore order in September shot dead a Japanese reporter and hunted down Burmese cameramen and photographers.
Asia has never had so many privately-owned TV and radio stations and news websites, all trying to provide the public with news of which they have been deprived for so long. Seven of the world ten highest circulation dailies are now Asian and the continent boasts the largest number of Internet-users.
Who could have imagined that footage of public executions in North Korea would one day be broadcast by international television? Who could have expected to see dozens of Burmese journalists smuggling reports out of the country from victims of atrocities by the ruling junta? However, the authorities continue to do their utmost to restrict access to sensitive regions. Journalists find it impossible to reach the scene of clashes between the army and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, or the tribal zones between Pakistan and Afghanistan, or some Chinese and Tibetan villages shaken by demonstrations.
Dictators and other self-proclaimed presidents have been responsible for brutality and bad faith in countering the emergence of free media. Master of this medium, Pervez Musharraf has presented himself as the “last bulwark of democracy”, while allowing his secret services to kidnap and torture journalists. He also, in November, ordered the banning of all privately-owned television and radio. The tyrant of Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il, decided on appeasement of the international community in relation to his nuclear programme, while allowing the most outrageous mistreatment to prevent North Koreans having contacts abroad. One man was executed for having made a phone call to a foreign country and international and dissident radios in Korean were systematically jammed.
This wave of damaging footage for governments prompted some very virulent counter-attacks. In Bangladesh, when the interim government was faced with demonstrations, it ordered independent television stations to remove news bulletins and talk shows from their schedules.
In the run-up to the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October, the Propaganda Department began bringing liberal media to heel and closing thousands of websites, blogs and discussion forums. Not one of the promises made by the authorities to secure the 2008 Olympics was kept. At least 180 foreign journalists were arrested, physically assaulted or threatened in China, even though at the time the games was awarded in 2001 an official said: “There will be total freedom of the press”. And 15 Chinese journalists and cyber-dissidents were arrested in 2007 for “inciting subversion” or “disclosing state secrets”.
Vietnam’s sole political party set out to get rid of leaders of opposition movements, including those of underground publications which started in 2006. Around a dozen journalists and cyber-dissidents were given prison sentences during the year. While in Malaysia, the internal security ministry hounded media and arrested several bloggers and opposition columnists.
Beware of taboo subjects
It can be a dangerous business to: criticise the royal family in Thailand, to raise the problem of the influence of religion in Afghanistan, to oppose Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or to expose corruption among those close to primer minister Hun Sen in Cambodia. As a result, Asian journalists are frequently driven to self-censorship. The law provides for long prison sentences, and even the death penalty, for those who take the risk of breaking religious political or social prohibitions.
A young journalist in the north of Afghanistan had this terrible experience in 2007. He was arrested for “blasphemy” and sentenced to death, while the Council of Mullahs put pressure on the authorities for even tighter control on the content of Afghan privately-owned TV. In Bangladesh, a cartoonist was imprisoned for innocent wordplay about the prophet Mohammed. A blogger was arrested in Bangkok for posting a remark about the Thai royal family. Finally, several Cambodian reporters were forced into exile after they investigated lucrative timber-trafficking involving relatives of the head of government.
Communist governments in particular use imprisonment of journalists and cyber-dissidents to punish critics and intimidate the rest of the profession. 55 reporters and Internet-users have been arrested in China since the country was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001. And Burma’s Win Tin is at 77 the world’s oldest imprisoned journalist. In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s imprisoned journalists are being held in Asia.
Censorship reaches into new technology
China is undoubtedly the most technically advanced country in terms of censorship and repression of the newest means of communication. Cyber-censors have continued to hound news websites as shown in Reporters Without Borders’ report, “Journey to the heart of Internet censorship”, which it released in 2007, based on information from a Chinese technician. A variety of state administrations imposed strict control on online content.
Bolstered by this success, the government extended its influence to blogs, for which the main hosts were forced to sign a self-discipline pact in 2007. Foreign-based independent news websites, such as the Boxun platform, fell victim to ferocious attacks by hackers emanating from China.
Chinese and Vietnamese dissidents continued to use the Internet and new technology to break out of the straitjackets in which they are held. The activist Hu Jia was arrested at the end of December a few weeks after giving evidence to the European Parliament via his webcam. He had been under house arrest for nearly a year. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh-City, journalists, lawyers and trade unionists were arrested for posting articles critical of the government online. Before his arrest, the lawyer Nguyen Van Dai had his own blog nguyenvandai.rsfblog.org. Despite filtering and surveillance, discussion forums in Vietnamese are full of political remarks and dissidents use Skype, paltalk and Facebook to communicate with one another.
The terrorist threat
The increase in suicide bombings by Al-Qaeda followers has created fresh dangers for the media, who have to closely cover the figures involved and sensitive events. Two Pakistan reporters got killed in this way in 2007. One died in the first suicide attack against Benazir Bhutto in Karachi and the other was killed by a bomber targeting the Pakistani interior minister.
Henchmen of Mullah Dadullah who cut the throats of the Afghan fixer and driver of Italian special correspondent Daniele Mastrogiacomo, then released him in exchange for several imprisoned Taliban leaders, created a precedent that only increased the risk run by journalists in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The murder of the respected head of Peace Radio, Zakia Zaki, stunned the entire profession and a botched investigation failed to find the perpetrators.
In Nepal, it was armed groups fighting for the rights of the Madhesi people in the south, who were responsible for creating terror. Some 100 journalists were assaulted, threatened or forced to flee the region. Hit lists of journalists to kill were posted up in some towns by Madhesi militants.
Impunity still holds sway
The authorities in Sri Lanka systematically blocked investigations into murder cases involving the press. Police made no attempt to probe further when suspects were indicated or vital clues found in the murders of two staff on the newspaper Uthayan or in the 2005 murder of Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the editor of Tamilnet. Pakistani authorities refused to reveal the conclusions of two investigations into the kidnapping and murder of Hayatullah Khan, a journalist from the tribal areas, whose widow was killed in 2007, as if to punish her for having sought justice in the murder of her husband, in which the secret services could be implicated.
It is rare for the determination of a judge to alter the course of history. An Australian judge concluded that the murder of five journalists in East Timor in 1975 was a war crime committed by Indonesian forces, after taking detailed evidence from dozens of witnesses, including a former Australian prime minister. But Jakarta immediately rejected his conclusions, thus prolonging the impunity of soldiers accused of atrocities in East Timor.
In the Philippines, Nena Santos, the courageous lawyer of murdered journalist, Marlene Esperat, succeeded in getting the justice system to investigate who ordered the killing. However this did not prevent two more journalists from being killed in 2007 by hit-men in the pay of corrupt politicians.
Head of the Asia-Pacific Desk