Attacks on the Press 2001: Asia Analysis

Journalists across Asia faced extraordinary pressures in 2001. Risks included reporting on war and insurgency, covering crime and corruption, or simply expressing a dissenting view in an authoritarian state.

CPJ’s two most striking indices of press freedom are the annual toll of journalists killed around the world and our list of journalists imprisoned at the end of the calendar year. Asian countries registered disproportionately high on both counts–with more journalists killed in Afghanistan than in any other country, and China once again the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Nepal, shockingly, took second place on the imprisoned list, with 17 journalists detained as of December 31, 2001, due to a sweeping crackdown on the Maoist insurgency that had severe implications for the press.

Afghanistan was the biggest story in the region, if not the world. Soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, hundreds of foreign correspondents made their way toward Afghanistan in anticipation of the eventual U.S.-led military campaign there. The U.S. justified its military action in Afghanistan as essential to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the September 11 attacks, and to remove from power the ruling Taliban militia that had provided him refuge and a base of operations in Afghanistan.

Journalists faced myriad restrictions in reporting on the war. The Taliban barred virtually all foreign journalists from areas under its control. The U.S. military, citing the need for secrecy in its war on terror, did not allow the press access to its forces on the ground until late November, and even then imposed unusually tight restrictions on reporting.

Initially, most journalists entered Afghanistan from Tajikistan, with the help of Northern Alliance forces. As the battle lines shifted, journalists advanced with the Alliance troops. However, with greater access came sharply increased dangers. Reporting on the frontlines was extremely dangerous, with journalists vulnerable not only to the obvious threats posed by landmines, cross-fire, and hostile militias, but to the risks of simply living and working in a lawless land. Eight journalists were killed in Afghanistan during a particularly brutal two weeks in November. The dangers did not subside with the demise of the Taliban, and in some cases seemed more acute as rogue militias and bandits operated unchecked.

The risks to journalists covering civil war and ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Asia received less attention, but were no less serious. The press in Nepal lost many of its legal protections at the end of November, when the government declared a state of emergency and suspended most civil and political rights in response to a growing Maoist insurgency. Anyone suspected of links to the Maoists could be branded a “terrorist” and detained for up to six months without trial. Dozens of journalists were rounded up under these provisions in a matter of weeks. While most were detained briefly and then released, 17 journalists were in custody as of December 31, 2001.

Sri Lanka’s long-running state of emergency, which had been in place since 1983, finally lapsed in 2001. But the administration of President Chandrika Kumaratunga used other existing legislation to retain its formidable powers. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), for instance, was invoked to allow authorities to detain anyone suspected of involvement with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for up to 18 months without charge. Activists from the Tamil Media Alliance registered concern that journalists could be detained under the PTA simply for “failing to provide information about the activities of terrorists.”

In India, the loud protests of the national press succeeded in the elimination of a similar clause from proposed anti-terrorism legislation. Despite this important victory, journalists reporting on anti-government insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeastern States continued to be vulnerable to harassment and even assault. In the most dramatic instance of abuse, Indian security forces in Kashmir attacked a group of 16 journalists who were documenting efforts by the Indian military to break up a funeral procession held for civilian victims of a suicide bomb attack.

In Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, authorities tried to block the media’s access to areas of civil conflict. Anti-government rebels also put pressure on journalists to get their side of the story out. Traveling to conflict areas without government authorization carried its own risks. In Sri Lanka, an American journalist who entered rebel-held territory was shot and seriously wounded by government soldiers who apparently mistook her party for members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, also known as Papua, a faction of the rebel Free Papua Movement held two documentary filmmakers hostage to gain international attention to the independence movement there. And in the restive province of Aceh, threats from separatist guerrillas forced the only local independent daily to shut down for two weeks.

Fighting in the southern Philippines between government forces and Muslim separatist guerrillas was practically ignored by the international community prior to the United States-led anti-terrorism campaign, but longstanding tensions there have made journalism an extremely dangerous profession. A radio host was killed in May soon after receiving an on-air threat from a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf, a guerrilla group that claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state and is suspected of links to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. His murder, along with that of another journalist killed in January for his reporting on the involvement of local officials in the drug trade, brought the total number of journalists killed since 1986, when democracy was restored in the Philippines, to 37. The death toll among the press in the Philippines is among the highest of any country in the world.

The alarmingly high incidence of violence against journalists in a democracy like the Philippines is far from exceptional. In fragile democracies with weak or politicized law enforcement agencies, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, attacks against the press are common because they tend to go unpunished.

For the media in Bangladesh, 2001 was a particularly brutal year. Scores of journalists were subject to violent assault. At least two of them were left permanently crippled by their attackers. One journalist was assassinated for his reporting on local criminal syndicates. Another was killed for reasons that remain unknown. In volatile Indonesia, the Alliance of Independent Journalists documented 95 attacks and other incidents of harassment against journalists. The very real threat of violence in these countries encouraged self-censorship among journalists.

Ongoing political and social turbulence in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea took its toll on local media. In Papua New Guinea, journalists were repeatedly targeted for attack during periods of unrest, while Fijian authorities exerted more subtle pressures to restrain political coverage.

The dangers faced by journalists in authoritarian Asian countries were of a different nature. Both China and Vietnam maintained a firm grip over all domestic media outlets and ruthlessly punished dissent. In these countries, the new possibilities for free expression that accompanied the advent of the Internet carried old risks of persecution. In 2001, China imprisoned eight people for publishing news and information online.

China held 35 journalists in prison at year’s end, more than any other country in the world. One of them was Jiang Weiping, who received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2001. Jiang landed in jail because of his reporting on local corruption. Though Communist Party officials have encouraged journalists to expose crime and corruption, reporters who overstepped government-mandated limits faced harsh reprisals.

In a backhanded compliment to growing independence and professionalism among elements of the country’s press, the Chinese government undertook one of the most severe media crackdowns in recent years, shutting down publications, firing editors and reporters seen as too independent, and issuing new directives listing forbidden topics.

Despite its problems, the Chinese press remains far more vibrant than the press in countries such as Burma, North Korea, and Laos. Burma’s military junta controls the local media through direct censorship and an elaborate regulatory system that prevent local journalists from reporting even the most mundane events. The regime also threatens dissident journalists with imprisonment–at least 12 Burmese journalists were jailed at the end of 2001. During a recent CPJ mission to Burma, one retired newspaper editor remarked that, “If you haven’t been in jail you haven’t been a reporter here.” (See page 2 for CPJ’s special report on press conditions in Burma.)

Pakistan’s military dictatorship, headed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was not nearly as repressive as the Burmese junta. However, the unchecked power of the military government tended to encourage self-censorship among local journalists, who were vulnerable to illegal detention and frequent harassment by the country’s intelligence agencies. After September 11, government scrutiny of the media became particularly intense.

The most serious problems facing the large numbers of foreign journalists who arrived in Pakistan in the fall, anticipating war in neighboring Afghanistan, were restrictions on access to the border areas and requirements that journalists reporting along the frontier region travel in the company of armed security officials. Local authorities argued that the restrictions were necessary to cope with the mounting threat of violence from groups angered by the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan.

Pressure on the government from religious extremists in Pakistan twice resulted in the closure of newspapers and the arrests of journalists on blasphemy charges.

Press freedom gains made across Southeast Asia in recent years seemed in danger of reversal in Thailand and Indonesia as new leaders took office with more restrictive attitudes toward the media. Many Thai journalists accused business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s new prime minister, of trying to exercise undue influence over the media in violation of constitutional guarantees. Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri worried journalists with her close links to the military and her decision to restore the post of information minister, an office that was used to control the media for decades under former dictator Suharto.

In Malaysia, the government further tightened its already firm grip on the mainstream media through political pressure, threats, and licensing restrictions. And in Singapore, where the local press is largely controlled by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), the government restricted the foreign media from covering domestic politics and introduced new regulations to curb independent political commentary on the Internet. One political activist was arrested in November after posting an article on the Singaporeans for Democracy Web site that criticized alleged election law violations by PAP leaders in 1997.

Kavita Menon is CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia. A. Lin Neumann is CPJ’s Asia consultant. Sophie Beach is CPJ’s Asia research associate.