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World Press Freedom Review
Overview of Asia
ASIA'S GRIM CHOICE: SELF-CENSORSHIP OR BRUTAL REPRESSION
By Barbara Trionfi
1999 will go down as another bleak year for freedom of the press in Asia. All too often journalists in the region have a choice when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues: Avoid confrontation with officialdom or face imprisonment and brutal repression. Subtler methods of stifling unwanted voices – such as harsh defamation legislation, advertising boycotts and legal provisions designed to protect national security – are also being widely and effectively deployed. Consequently, the practice of self-censorship is nudging toward epidemic proportions.
The Chinese authorities tightened their already iron grip on the media in an orchestrated initiative designed to suppress unwanted opinions in a year of three highly sensitive anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic; the 40th anniversary of the violent uprising in Tibet; and the 10th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre. Ideological vigilance intensified and journalists were ordered to "pay particular attention to social order and political stability".
China is currently imprisoning at least nine journalists; Burma (Myanmar) is holding at least 13. The military junta in Burma governs by draconian decrees and continues to brutally disregard human rights, including freedom of expression. Well over 1,000 political prisoners remain behind bars enduring the most appalling, inhumane conditions.
The press in Vietnam remains shackled by the Communist government. Virtually all media outlets are operated by government-controlled or party-affiliated organisations. Most editors, publishers, and reporters are communist party members and independent thinking is often violently repressed. The government controls all administrative aspects of the press, including approval and appointment of publishers and staff members. The party’s Central Committee on Thought and Cultural Affairs controls press content by issuing guidelines and directives to editors.
Similarly, in Laos, the media is tightly restrained; domestic newspapers and radio and television broadcasting are under the government’s watchful eye. Under Communist rule since the 1970s, Laos is one of the most tightly controlled societies in Asia. Recently, the Laotian government has instigated a tentative process of economic liberalisation, but there have been no moves to reform the political structure. The ruling Laos People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) holds 98 out of the 99 National Assembly seats.
Cambodia, on the other hand, is showing some signs of positive development in terms of media freedom. Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently become a proponent of press freedom, publicly praising the benefits to society of an unfettered media. While his motives may be linked more to foreign investment and donor aid than democratic principle, the policy has left some breathing room for the Cambodian media. The official rhetoric does not, however, guarantee the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia. An anti-royalist newspaper was shut down in 1999, for example, after it printed articles critical of King Sihanouk. The paper was banned from appearing for 30 days, criminal charges were filed against it, and its printer was warned to stop printing the paper for the month.
While Thailand continues to be a beacon of hope for media freedom in the region, some worrying developments this year showed that freedoms are far from guaranteed. In what appeared to be an extremely narrow interpretation of the Constitution and the Election Law, the media were prohibited from carrying senatorial candidates' views, policies or perceived role in the Senate in the run-up to the country's first Senate election in March. Official intimidation also showed its ugly face this year. Several government cadres stormed into the Thai Post’s offices and threatened and intimidated journalists for criticising the deputy prime minister.
Since President Joseph Estrada took office in the Philippines in June 1998, several developments have brought the administration's commitment to freedom of the press into question. Critics have accused Estrada of curtailing media freedom in a country which has embraced the principles of free expression in recent years. In particular, an advertising boycott of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the most widely circulated newspaper in the country, was generallly considered to be official retaliation for critical reporting. Estrada also filed a huge libel suit against the Manila Times newspaper, seeking US$ 2.6 million in damages over a story that allegedly linked him to a government contract scandal. The paper apologised and the president withdrew the suit. A few months later, however, the Manila Times was shut down, having been bought by investors who reportedly have close political connections to the government. Relations between the media and the Office of the President have been fraught with tension but, promisingly, Estrada recently held a news conference in which he announced he had a "millennium wish" for a "cease-fire" with the media.
The more developed media landscapes of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea face other key concerns. Particularly contentious is the perceived decline in the standards of journalism as media outlets battle for market share. In Japan, some even took the view that a leading newspaper’s coverage led to Princess Masako’s miscarriage this year. South Korean politicians denounce journalists as chaebol (family-owned conglomerates) representatives, and the Taiwanese media is often accused of going down a sensationalist path.
Japan’s parliament passed a controversial law in August allowing police to use wiretaps to investigate certain serious crimes. A key concern for journalists is that the law fails to protect journalists’ right to protect their confidential sources of information.
Similarly in Taiwan, in August, the four main media representative organisations publicly condemned the government-initiated wiretapping of reporters and searches of news media premises, describing the moves as an infringement of press freedom. The application of criminal libel, however, continues to be the major blot on Taiwan’s press freedom copybook.
Relations between the South Korean media and President Kim Dae Jung were tense this year following several clashes. Libel is looming as a major threat to press freedom, and tax inspections on media outlets also exacerbated tensions.
A Journalists Association of Korea opinion poll showed, interestingly, that 74.9 percent of those asked felt that the main obstacles to press reform were the owners of the media; 8.3 percent felt the government were the main obstacle; 4.9 percent mentioned top managers; and 3.3 percent said reporters. Asked whether the Kim Dae Jung administration has exerted unfair pressure on the media, 62.3 percent said ‘Yes’, while 25.4 percent answered ‘No’.
North Korea is a different world; continuing to adopt a brutally repressive approach. An omni-present security service ensures that no one questions the nation’s ideology or the leader’s infallibility. The country’s prisons play host to over 250,000 political prisoners, or "criminals" who were found guilty of "ideological transgressions". The media perform the role of official cheerleader, distorting reports in the authority’s favour and never questioning the state’s policies or performance.
Hong Kong’s media remained ostensibly free but two reinterpretations of the Basic Law by Beijing effectively overturned the judgments by the Hong Kong court. This greatly blurred the boundary between the legal systems of Hong Kong and the mainland, weakening the human rights safeguards. Legal restraint is a hanging sword over the head of the media, and all the indications are that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region authorities plan to enact legislation to implement more stringent provisions in the Basic Law -- signs that the enjoyment of rights is being gradually eroded.
Indonesia’s media battled to hold on to its new-found freedom this year. President Habibie’s short term in office was significant in media terms as he systematically dismantled the oppressive legislative infrastructure that shackled the press during the 32-year Suharto era. Civil unrest simmers in many parts of Indonesia and many still consider the media a major agitator and claim that journalists don’t behave "responsibly". The chaos and unrest that regularly besets parts of the country makes reporting an immensely dangerous profession. At least one journalist was killed this year in Indonesia and several attacks on journalists were reported, many carried out by the security forces.
Havoc and violence played a prominent role in East Timor in 1999 as the people voted on the issue of self-determination. The violence took a heavy toll on the media. Two journalists were murdered and about 300 were attacked and threatened. All the evidence suggests that Indonesian soldiers were responsible for the killings, and paramilitary groups backed by the Jakarta government identified the media as prime targets in the run-up to the referendum.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir's dominant political party and its coalition allies either own or control the main newspapers, radio and television stations in the country, leaving little scope for dissenting voices to filter through to the general public. A range of repressive laws are also on hand to rein in vocal critics. The imprisonment of a veteran Canadian journalist this year further diminished Malaysia’s press freedom reputation. Murray Hiebert, from the Far Eastern Economic Review, was sentenced to six weeks in prison for "scandalizing the court" for writing an article which discussed the growing number of lawsuits filed in Malaysia. The piece focused on a suit brought by the wife of a prominent judge against the Kuala Lumpur International School after it had dropped her son from the school debating team. Hiebert mentioned that legal observers thought that the case had moved surprisingly quickly through the court system.
The Malaysian authorities also used a draconian press law to clamp down on pro-opposition papers in the wake of Malaysia’s bitterly-contested elections in November.
Singapore, like Malaysia, uses the concept of ‘Asian Values’ as justification for silencing critics. Self-censorship is rife, the news media are largely state-controlled, permits are required for public speaking and publications, censorship is strict and libel laws are rigorously enforced.
Turning to the Indian sub-continent, media freedom in Sri Lanka continues to dwell under the shadow of murder, assault, intimidation and far-reaching censorship. At least five journalists were murdered in 1999, many others were attacked or intimidated. Extensive restrictions on reporting military operations, relating to the fighting in north eastern Sri Lanka are currently in place and all photographs, news reports and television material relating to the war must be submitted to the military censor before screening. In one welcome initiative, a government-appointed committee called for changes in the existing laws relating to the media -- including the repeal of criminal defamation legislation.
1999 was not a good year for democracy or for press freedom in Pakistan. The army staged a coup on October 12. The constitution was suspended and a state of emergency was declared. However, because of the increasingly authoritarian attitude of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the demise of his government did not evoke a negative reaction throughout the country. Earlier in the year, the Sharif government tried to subdue the Jang Group, the country’s largest media group, and to punish Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, and other journalists, who had cooperated in the production of a BBC documentary investigating corruption involving the family and business concerns of the then prime minister. These episodes, which received widespread publicity, illustrated the range of instruments that are in the hands of the government to intimidate, harass and punish the Pakistani press.
At least four journalists were murdered in India this year. As in recent years, the culprits have not been brought to justice and the motives behind the brutal killings remain unclear. Numerous cases of attacks on journalists and media offices, and of police harassment, were also reported. The escalating tensions between Pakistan and India over the disputed Kashmir region also impacted negatively on media freedom. Media access to the conflict zone was severely restricted and, at the height of the military clashes, India banned the distribution of Pakistan Television (PTV) programmes through cable networks throughout India. Certain websites -- such as Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language daily newspaper -- were also apparently blocked during the conflict.
1999 was a year of violence against the Bangladeshi media; at least 40 reporters and 50 press Photographers were assaulted or injured during the course of the year.
Several journalists received death threats and many newspaper offices were attacked. Most of the assaults and attacks stemmed from political tensions during general strikes organised by the opposition parties.
The three-year-old Maoist insurgency in the Kingdom of Nepal has considerably blemished the Himalayan country’s otherwise reasonable press freedom record. Any journalist covering the conflict is vulnerable to legal harassment or threats and intimidation from either party. And many journalists have reported being threatened and intimidated by the rebel forces. During 1999 at least 16 journalists were imprisoned in Nepal.
In Bhutan, the King rules the mountainous, Buddhist nation in an autocratic fashion allowing no private media. But as part of his silver jubilee celebrations, television and the Internet were finally welcomed into the country.
The radical Taliban movement in Afghanistan permit no independent reporting, implementing brutal policies to curtail freedom of expression. ‘News’ is limited to official announcements, accounts of Taliban military victories and anti-opposition propaganda.
The five Central Asian Republics are also a virtual media freedom desert. In Turkmenistan there is no need for censorship as self-censorship is so prevalent that newspapers silence themselves. There is no government harassment or repression of the independent media -- there is no independent media. Over the past five years, independent media outlets have been shut down one by one. Uzbek newspapers continue to be funded and therefore controlled by government organs like ministries and city governments and meet direct censorship. In practice, the electronic mass media is stifled by an effective state-imposed self-censorship on journalists via highly bureaucratic re-registration requirements that each TV station must pass annually.
In Tajikistan, most private newspapers only survive with the help of government subsidies. Challenging the performance of the authorities would jeopardise their financial lifeline. The fact that there are no private printing presses or distribution networks also gives the government many opportunities to wield influence over private papers. On the private broadcasting front however, there are local stations operating and, while under-resourced, they do have a reasonable presence in pockets of the country.
Censorship of the media and harassment of journalists have been common tactics used by the government in Kazakhstan to successfully curtail freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the right to political participation. These tactics were glaringly evident in the run-up to the recent elections.
Compared to the surrounding Central Asian republics, Kyrgyz journalists certainly enjoy a greater level of freedom. However, various methods of repression such as arbitrary tax inspections, threats and harassment, and undue government control over the court system also result in journalists being essentially shackled.
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