Attacks on the Press 2002: Asia Analysis

The vicious murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan focused international attention on the dangers faced by journalists covering the U.S. “war on terror,” yet most attacks on journalists in Asia happened far from the eyes of the international press. In countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, reporters covering crime and political corruption were as vulnerable to attack as those reporting on violent insurgency. Seven journalists were killed in 2002 for their work in Asia.

Most murders occur in countries where weak governments or corrupt law enforcement agencies ensure that violent attacks on the press go unpunished. Yet journalists also endure excessive government interference, with authorities utilizing legal or political pressures to silence critical media reports. Several governments exploit national security legislation to harass and imprison members of the media, and Asia ended 2002 with far more journalists in jail than any other region of the world.

Physical assaults against journalists were most common in countries facing political instability or localized conflict, including Bangladesh and the Philippines. The southwestern region of Bangladesh along the border with India, where violent guerrilla groups and criminal gangs are active, remains especially dangerous for journalists. One journalist was killed there in 2002, and another was kidnapped and is feared dead. CPJ gave a 2002 International Press Freedom Award to Tipu Sultan, a Bangladeshi journalist who was almost killed in January 2001 after a savage beating by a gang he identified as followers of a local politician.

While Muslim insurgent groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, continue to pose a danger to journalists in the fractious southern Philippines, the biggest threat in 2002 came from corrupt local officials and criminals, who routinely attack members of the media for reporting on their activities. Two reporters were assassinated in the Philippines in 2002, apparently in reprisal for their exposés on corruption and crime. Thirty-nine journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since the return to democracy there in 1986, but no one has yet been convicted in any of these slayings.

In Afghanistan, a nascent local press has gained strength following the overthrow of the repressive Taliban regime. However, Afghan journalists still endure political pressures and the threat of violence, especially in areas beyond the capital, Kabul, that are controlled by autocratic warlords or plagued by factional fighting. With a weak central government, no effective law enforcement agencies, and no international peacekeeping force outside Kabul, regional warlords operate with impunity, and several journalists who reported on abuses by ruling officials in 2002 were harassed, detained, or tortured. Foreign journalists operate with relative freedom, although the U.S. military tightly restricts reporting on its operations in the country.

Physical attacks against journalists decreased in Indonesia, where political tensions eased overall. However, violent unrest continues in places such as Aceh and Irian Jaya, where separatist movements are active. Visiting reporters still must secure special visas to enter Indonesia, and authorities sometimes restrict media access to these conflict areas. Though resident foreign correspondents are generally free to do their jobs, one journalist was refused an extension of his visa after reporting on human rights abuses allegedly committed by Indonesian authorities in Aceh and East Timor.

Access restrictions that had prevented substantial coverage of the civil war in Sri Lanka were finally relaxed in early 2002, just before the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire agreement. However, even as peace talks were under way to end the bloody, 19-year-old conflict, LTTE rebels and state security officials still threatened journalists with violent reprisal for their reporting.

A spate of attacks against local journalists in India-controlled Kashmir highlighted the dangers of reporting on the conflict there. Amid increased tensions between Pakistan and India, which have competing claims of sovereignty over Kashmir, pressure on the media intensified during the run-up to state legislative assembly elections in the fall. Journalists reporting on communal violence in the western state of Gujarat, during which rampaging mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims, were targeted not only by the mobs but also by police who did not want evidence of their complicity in the attacks documented.

Daniel Pearl’s murder by Islamic militants sent a chilling signal to reporters attempting to cover the activities of terrorist networks across Asia. However, journalists were more commonly threatened and harassed by governments fearful that reports of terrorist activity in their back yards could damage international relations and discourage foreign investment. In Malaysia, officials delayed distribution of foreign publications that reported on the existence of terrorist networks in the country. In Pakistan, local journalists covering the sensitive issue of the military government’s failure to curb radical militant groups complained of intensified surveillance and harassment by state intelligence agencies. And in Bangladesh, the government arrested several journalists at the end of 2002 for anti-state activities, described in one government statement as the “malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country.”

In 2002, Asian leaders used the threat of imprisonment more than ever before to punish journalists for unwelcome reporting. Governments most often exploited legislation designed to safeguard national security to crack down on their critics in the media–a tactic that linked Asia’s most repressive regimes, including China and Vietnam, with the region’s democracies, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Taiwan. While the international community remained largely silent about many of these abuses, there seemed to be a growing sense that security concerns trump civil liberties.

Asia’s authoritarian governments have long used national security legislation to jail journalists, and such laws are the primary reason that in 2002 Asia led the world in the number of imprisoned journalists, with 78 behind bars in the region out of a world total of 136. In China, where laws against subversion have been used routinely to silence critical writers, five new arrests brought the total number of imprisoned journalists to 39, making China the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fourth year in a row.

The Internet has become a way for citizens in authoritarian countries such as China, Vietnam, and Laos to escape state censorship and publish with relative freedom. In response, governments increasingly use national security laws to imprison writers who publish critical reports online. For the last two years, the majority of new arrests of Chinese journalists were in response to writings published on the Internet. In an ongoing cat-and-mouse game, Chinese Internet users in 2002 frequently managed to²protest and evade government controls. In response, authorities have implemented sophisticated new technologies to monitor users’ online activities and control online content.

The Vietnamese government seems be following in China’s footsteps: The number of imprisoned journalists in Vietnam jumped from two in 2001 to seven in 2002. This drastic increase reflects a disturbing new strategy by Vietnam’s leaders of using national- security charges against those who publish online news reports and opinions that are banned from the tightly controlled official media. In recent years, most Vietnamese journalists on CPJ’s imprisoned list have been under an administrative order that provides for indefinite house arrest without due process.

The most spectacular abuse of press freedom under the guise of protecting national security occurred in Nepal, where a violent uprising by Maoist rebels prompted the Nepalese government to declare a state of emergency and introduce sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in November 2001. While these measures were intended to quell the bloody conflict, the government’s tactics also precipitated an ongoing crisis for the media. The state of emergency, which was lifted in August 2002, suspended constitutional guarantees of press freedom and other civil rights. Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists were detained under the broad provisions of the anti-terrorism ordinance, which allows for the arrest of anyone “in contact with” or “supportive of” the rebels and remained in effect as this book went to press.

In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, government attempts to exploit national security concerns to limit reporting were thwarted by free media, which aired heated public debates on the issue. The Hong Kong government’s plan to draft anti-subversion legislation provoked widespread outrage internationally and throughout the region, with journalists and press freedom advocates fearing that the laws would threaten Hong Kong’s status as a bastion of free expression in Asia. A diverse and international group–including lawyers, journalists, bankers, librarians, and legislators–that coalesced to protest the legislation will no doubt keep up the pressure when the government issues a draft law in early 2003.

In Southeast Asia, governments continue to interfere in the media through a combination of legal and financial pressures. The announcement that longtime Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad will resign in 2003 is not expected to improve the repressive climate for the press there. His designated successor is likely to continue the legal coercion and ownership restrictions that have been in effect there for 25 years. Meanwhile, the Thai government of Thaksin Shinawatra has used similar tactics to curb one of the region’s freest media by banning foreign news reports and domestic radio broadcasts that criticize official policy. Thai journalists reported numerous instances throughout 2002 of backdoor political and financial pressure being applied against the media.

Sophie Beach, senior research associate for Asia, along with Kavita Menon, senior program coordinator who is respinsible for Asia, researched and wrote this section. A. Lin Neumann, Asia program consultant, also made substantial contributions to this section.