DESPITE PRESS FREEDOM ADVANCES ACROSS ASIA IN RECENT YEARS, totalitarian regimes in Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos maintained their stranglehold on the media. Even democratic Asian governments sometimes used authoritarian tactics to control the press, particularly when faced with internal conflict.
Sri Lanka, for instance, imposed harsh censorship regulations during the year in order to restrict reporting on the country’s long-running civil war. And in countries with a vibrant independent press, including India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, journalists were frequently subjected to physical assault and intimidation.
In some cases, commercial incentives have lured governments that resist political pressure, especially from the West, to reform restrictive media policies. This has happened in Malaysia, where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged not to censor the Internet in a bid to attract high-tech investors to the country. Though his government still exercises tight control over the mainstream media, the rapid growth of Internet journalism is changing Malaysia’s political culture. In 2000, CPJ honored Steven Gan, editor of the online news site Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) with an International Press Freedom Award, recognizing the pioneering role he has played to promote independent journalism in an authoritarian political environment.
However, across much of East and Southeast Asia, governments deflated the theory that economic liberalization begets political liberties, including press freedom. China continued to open itself up to international trade, but further tightened its control over mainland media, while expressing open hostility toward the free press in Hong Kong. North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos followed suit, experimenting with increased links to the outside world while trying to maintain absolute control over news and information.
Especially in high-tech Asia, the Internet has the potential to make independent news readily available in countries long dominated by official propaganda. Yet most hardline governments seem determined to defend their turf. Vietnam, Laos, and Burma have all issued decrees and guidelines to curb independent news and opinion on the Internet. China has issued a slew of Internet regulations in recent years, each more onerous and elaborately contrived than the last, in what CPJ believes is the most comprehensive effort by any government to control new media. (See special report.) The world’s leading jailer of journalists, China has imprisoned at least eight people for publishing dissent online.
Press conditions in Burma remain among the worst in the world. The ruling junta not only keeps domestic media on a tight leash, but also arrests its citizens for “crimes” that include listening to foreign short-wave radio broadcasts and using a fax machine. The isolationist junta has succeeded in blocking most information coming into or going out of the country, making it difficult to document press freedom violations. While CPJ has recorded the cases of eight journalists imprisoned in Burma, the actual number of those jailed for their journalistic work is thought to be much higher.
In September, Cheng Poh, a 77-year-old lawyer, was sentenced to 14 years in prison (having been jailed in July) for allegedly circulating photocopies of foreign news articles. Though he was released a few weeks after being sentenced, along with a group of elderly political prisoners, his case illustrates the vulnerability of anyone who tries to disseminate independent news in Burma.
Afghanistan ranks alongside Burma as one of the most information-poor Asian countries, but the ruling Taliban militia has at least begun to allow more foreign journalists into the country. The Taliban regime is eager for diplomatic recognition, and, after more than 20 years of civil war, the country desperately needs foreign aid. Though Taliban leaders are divided about the value of international media attention, some apparently believe that without news coverage, Afghanistan is doomed to slip off the global agenda completely.
North Korea, similarly, gambled that it might be in its strategic interest to grant limited access to correspondents from countries long deemed mortal enemies. Though foreign journalists were kept under close watch by government minders during the carefully stage-managed visits of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung and, later in the year, U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, they still caught vivid glimpses of daily life in one of the world’s last totalitarian states. The local media, however, remain organs of state propaganda.
Coup attempts in Fiji and the Solomon Islands resulted in harsher conditions for the media there in 2000. One year after the successful military coup in Pakistan, the government made no overt moves to crack down on its critics in the press. Pakistani journalists were prone to self-censorship, however, given that they work without constitutional protections or democratic safeguards.
Censorship in various forms has been in force in Sri Lanka for more than two years, badly straining its democracy and preventing full public discussion of the war between the armed forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government has also refused to grant journalists regular access to the conflict areas, effectively ensuring that coverage of the war remains scant in both domestic and international media. In India, journalists worried that proposed antiterrorism legislation would be used to stifle independent reporting on insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeastern States. And in Nepal, the government signaled its intention to crack down on publications sympathetic to Maoist guerrillas fighting to topple the constitutional monarchy.
By and large, however, the press in democratic Asia is threatened less by government action than by government inaction in the face of violent attacks against journalists. Seven Asian journalists were killed for their work in 2000, nearly all of them in countries with an aggressive independent press but weak or politicized law enforcement agencies, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. A newspaper editor in Thailand, meanwhile, narrowly escaped assassination. In most of these cases, the journalists were apparently targeted for exposing political corruption or other criminal activities.
In post-Suharto Indonesia, the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists documented more than 100 cases of attacks and threats against the press in 2000. Many of these attacks were led by angry mobs, one symptom of the country’s political instability. Security forces also continued to pose a threat to journalists, particularly those reporting on independence movements in regions such as Aceh and Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua).
After winning independence from Indonesia in 1999, East Timor began the hard task of building independent media from scratch. The country seems poised to enjoy a free press.
Journalists reporting on the months-long hostage crisis in the southern Philippines fell victim to a new type of attack. Many of them were kidnapped and held for ransom in what became a lucrative sideline for their captors, members of a loose confederation of armed gangs that claim to be fighting for a separate Islamic state.
On a positive note, aggressive investigative reporting in the Philippines and Thailand provided a powerful example of the media’s watchdog role. In Manila, during the impeachment trial of then-president Joseph Estrada on charges of bribery and graft, prosecutors introduced as evidence a series of articles published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, documenting the accumulation of Estrada’s “hidden wealth.” In Thailand, the leading candidate for prime minister, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was indicted on charges of violating government rules on the declaration of assets after a Thai-language business paper published a detailed account of his holdings.
Though Thaksin was elected prime minister in January 2001, his indictment remained before a constitutional court that could decide to force his resignation and bar him from politics. Meanwhile, the ongoing legal and media scrutiny has put Thai politicians on notice.
Kavita Menon is CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia. A. Lin Neumann is CPJ’s Asia consultant. Areta Lloyd, research associate for the Asia program until December 2000, and Kymie Hwang, who loaned her expertise when it was most needed, provided invaluable assistance in compiling the documentation for this section.
The Freedom Forum provided vital support for CPJ’s efforts to improve press freedom conditions in Sri Lanka.