Attacks on the Press 1999: Asia Analysis

By Kavita Menon and A. Lin Neumann
Much of Asia remained hostile to a free, independent media, despite the growing consensus that Asian political and economic stability depends in great measure on governments’ willingness to improve transparency and lift restrictions on the press. In China, Burma, Vietnam, and even Malaysia, government suppression of the media is a matter of policy. In other parts of Asia, notably India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and parts of Indonesia, journalists were mainly threatened by political violence.

China offered perhaps the most dramatic example of a country at war with itself–attempting on the one hand to join the modern world with its new technologies and global standards, but still using its secret police to monitor the Internet and rejecting international norms regarding free expression. Though China’s prime minister famously exhorted the media to act as a “vanguard of reform. . . and watchdog of the government,” his government cracked down on reformist publications and imprisoned at least 11 journalists for questioning government policy. By the end of 1999, China held 19 journalists in jail, the worst record in the world.

China ratcheted up its repression of journalists and pro-democracy activists in a year crowded with sensitive political anniversaries–including the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Fearful of embarrassment, Chinese authorities moved to block all possible outlets for dissent–banning Internet bulletin boards and Web sites, blocking the transmission of CNN and the distribution of Time and Newsweek during sensitive periods, and even shutting down state-controlled newspapers and magazines that they decided had become overly independent. Authorities meanwhile forced state-run media to engage in lockstep propaganda campaigns reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s.

East Timor, where journalists covering the territory’s transition toward independence were regularly menaced and attacked by militias wielding machetes and iron rods, starkly illustrated the dangers posed by sectarian, political and religious violence in many parts of Asia. Indonesia, which had occupied East Timor since 1975, was responsible for the violence, with its military actively supporting the militias in their bloody campaign. Journalists working in East Timor were directly targeted; the entire press corps was eventually forced to flee as militias laid waste to the territory after voters overwhelmingly chose independence.

Soldiers from an Indonesian army battalion are prime suspects in the murders of two journalists, killed within days of each other in September. Indonesia has made great strides toward promoting press freedom during its own recent democratization, but its leaders were unwilling to act to protect journalists during this critical period. Reporters elsewhere in Indonesia–in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and Ambon–noted that the prospect of ongoing ethnic and communal violence in many parts of the country made their jobs increasingly dangerous.

In Sri Lanka, political violence claimed the lives of two journalists who were killed by shrapnel from a bomb set off at a campaign rally for the president. Three other journalists were assassinated during the course of the year, for reasons that remain unknown. Journalists in Bangladesh were frequently assaulted and harassed, as the country continued to be plagued by endemic political and criminal violence. And in India, religious, ethnic, and regional conflicts placed enormous pressures on local journalists, though the Indian press remains one of the strongest in the world.

In Hong Kong, now under Chinese sovereignty but governed by the principle of “one country-two systems,” relations between traditionally free local media and the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa grew increasingly strained. Calls for a government-appointed press council sparked concerns that journalists’ rights would be eroded. When the head of the government’s independent broadcaster was removed in October, many journalists believed Beijing had forced the move out of anger over her independent stance.

Malaysia, while nominally more tolerant than some of its neighbors, used de facto government control of mainstream media to stifle dissent and help engineer a general election victory for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Asia’s longest-serving elected leader. Malaysia jailed Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Murray Hiebert for contempt of court in 1999, drawing international condemnation and sending a chilling message of intolerance to all reporters in the country. Toward the end of the year, a flurry of notices issued by the home ministry threatened major pro-opposition publications with closure.

Thailand and the Philippines remained vibrant media markets, as journalists continued to guard their rights jealously. There were still problems, however. In the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada was implicated in an advertising boycott directed against the nation’s largest newspaper, which has been highly critical of the Estrada administration. In another incident, Estrada sued The Manila Times for libel and was then accused of engineering the sale of the newspaper to a group controlled by one of his associates.

At the other end of the regional press freedom spectrum are Burma and North Korea, both countries where independent journalism does not exist. In Afghanistan, under the rule of the ultra-conservative Taliban militia, there is still no local independent press and foreign correspondents often have problems entering and moving around the country. The situation is still porous, however, and several foreign news agencies maintain bureaus in Kabul.

Pakistan was in a class apart in 1999. (See special report.) Local media struggled under the increasingly autocratic, though nominally democratic, rule of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif until October, when Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup and declared himself chief executive. At year’s end, Musharraf had not moved to impose controls over the press. Some journalists said that, at least for the moment, they felt more secure under military rule than they had under Sharif’s corrupted version of democracy.

Kavita Menon is CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia.

A. Lin Neumann is CPJ’s Asia consultant.