Attacks on the Press 2003: Asia Analysis

Across Asia, press freedom conditions varied radically in 2003, from authoritarian regimes with strictly regulated state-controlled media in North Korea and Laos, to democratic nations with outspoken and diverse journalism in India and Taiwan. Members of the media throughout the region struggled against excessive government interference, outdated press laws, violent attacks, and imprisonment for their work on the Internet. Five journalists were killed in the Philippines, Asia’s most dangerous country for the press. Meanwhile, 39 journalists remained behind bars in China.

While journalists in places such as China, Vietnam, and Afghanistan are experiencing greater freedom than they have in years past, these opportunities have come at a price. In Afghanistan, where, until two years ago, the press was barred under the Taliban regime, as many as 150 newspapers and magazines are now available in the capital, Kabul. But many topics remained risky and even taboo in 2003, including criticizing the powerful regional warlords. Afghan journalists who dared to write about abuses of power risked threats and attacks.

Although journalists in Vietnam remained tightly regulated by government censors, state-run media were allowed to cover crime and corruption, a change from previous years. However, online journalists and writers were increasingly targeted and silenced by the Vietnamese government. The Chinese media have become significantly more diverse during the last decade, but attacks on journalists also appeared to be on the rise, and China remained the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Meanwhile, in a positive regional development, journalists in Hong Kong successfully challenged restrictive press legislation sanctioned by Beijing in July.

Asian leaders in Taiwan, Pakistan, Burma, and Indonesia seized on national security as an excuse to stifle critical voices. Taiwanese authorities used vaguely worded national security laws to prosecute Hung Che-cheng, a reporter for the now defunct daily Jin Pao (Power News). Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, accused the English-language monthly The Herald of being “anti-army” and “damaging our national interest” at a meeting with editors in November. And in Burma, Zaw Thet Htway, editor of the sports magazine First Eleven, was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death for allegedly plotting to overthrow the ruling military junta. Although death sentences are rarely carried out in Burma, according to exiled Burmese journalists, the harsh sentence was an unmistakable warning to the press.

Continuing this trend of citing national security issues to harass journalists, Indonesian authorities restricted reporters’ access to the military’s offensive in the restive Aceh Province and encouraged editors to rally patriotic support for the operation. Following the lead of the U.S. government, the Indonesian military embedded local journalists with military units, discouraged independent reporters from covering the war, and banned journalists from contacting the separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM.

Antiquated and punitive press laws were often used against journalists in 2003 in reprisal for negative coverage of government officials and other powerful individuals. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri utilized colonial-era “insult” laws to sentence the editor of the popular tabloid Rakyat Merdeka to a six-month suspended prison sentence for criticizing her in print. With presidential elections on the horizon for 2004, this case could have a chilling effect on Indonesia’s media.

One of India’s oldest newspapers, the English-language daily The Hindu, was slapped with 20 separate criminal defamation cases by the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in retaliation for critical editorials and articles. Each case carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison, but even without prison time, the cases could grind on for several years, requiring hefty legal fees and multiple court appearances by editors and reporters.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, blasphemy laws were used against journalists who published stories on sensitive subjects. Two journalists from the Kabul-based weekly Aftab in Afghanistan were arrested and charged with blasphemy in 2003 for publishing a series of controversial articles condemning crimes committed by senior Afghan leaders in the name of Islam. Sayeed Mirhussein Mahdawi, Aftab‘s editor, and Ali Payam Sistany, the newspaper’s assistant editor, were released from jail on June 25, but their case raised questions about the future application of Shariah, or Islamic law, in Afghanistan. In January 2004, a loya jirga, or grand council, ratified Afghanistan’s constitution, but it was not clear whether moderate or conservative interpretations of the press law will prevail.

In Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, Munawar Mohsin, a former subeditor at the Peshawar-based newspaper Frontier Post, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to life in prison on July 8. The court ruled that Mohsin had “intentionally and willfully committed an offense” by publishing a letter to the editor in 2001 that made derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad. Mohsin said he ran the letter by accident and admitted in an interview that at the time of the incident, he had recently completed a drug rehabilitation program. Four other journalists from the Frontier Post were also arrested, but only Mohsin remains in jail.

Journalists throughout Asia faced violence in 2003, particularly in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The vast majority of attacks went unpunished. In Bangladesh, reports surfaced almost daily of brutal assaults on local journalists in reprisal for reporting on official corruption and crime.

In December, members of the youth wing of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal, went on a rampage against the press in the southern Jhalakhati District. The Jubo Dal group beat and stabbed Humayun Kabir, local correspondent for the regional daily Dakkhinanchal, on December 4 in the town of Jhalakhati in retaliation for an article he wrote alleging a connection between the group’s leader and an attack on a local engineer, according to press reports. After Kabir was rescued and hospitalized, local journalists tried to organize a protest against the violence at the local press club. In response, Jubo Dal targeted them for additional harassment and attacks. At least 10 journalists in the region were forced to go into hiding after Jubo Dal members threatened them and their families. At year’s end, no charges had been filed against any of the journalists’ assailants.

The Vietnamese government allowed journalists more leeway to cover crime and corruption in 2003, but they were also increasingly subject to attacks in retribution for investigative reporting. CPJ documented four attacks on journalists in 2003, a marked increase over previous years. In one of the most egregious examples, two reporters from government publications were beaten by the chairman of a village cooperative while investigating villagers’ complaints about embezzlement by local officials. Police later filed a report accusing the journalists of “disorderly conduct.” Police are often slow to respond to such incidents.

In Afghanistan, where the press has enjoyed a dramatic increase in freedom since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, journalists also risked attack for their work. In April, prominent journalist Dr. Samay Hamed, a recipient of CPJ’s 2003 International Press Freedom Award, was attacked in Kabul by a knife-wielding man who cut him in the chest, arms, and hands after Hamed denounced the power of local warlords in an interview with the BBC. Other journalists also reported death threats and harassment for their work, including Zahur Afghan, editor of the Kabul-based daily Erada.

In Asia, the Internet is providing new challenges to journalists, with governments trying to restrict online speech in China, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. The Internet poses a significant threat to the government’s control over information in China, where an estimated 78 million people are online.

Using sophisticated technology, officials monitor what people post on the Internet and threaten imprisonment as a way to control critical commentary. Six Internet essayists were jailed in China in 2003, bringing the total number of people imprisoned there for writing or distributing information online to 19. Du Daobin, a prolific and prominent writer, was arrested after posting a number of essays calling for the release of Liu Di, a college student in Beijing known by her pen name, “Stainless Steel Mouse,” who was imprisoned in 2002 after writing pro-reform essays. Liu was freed on November 28, but Du, charged with subversion, remained in jail at year’s end.

The threat of jail time is also used to silence critics in Vietnam, where five of the eight journalists in prison were targeted after writing or distributing information online. After handing down a 13-year sentence to Internet essayist Pham Hong Son in June, the Hanoi Supreme Court bowed to international pressure and reduced his sentence to five years on appeal. Prior to his arrest in March 2002, Son had translated and posted an essay titled “What is Democracy?” that first appeared on the U.S. State Department Web site.

Ten journalists died for their work in Asia in 2003, five of them killed in the Philippines, the biggest annual tally there since 1997, when 13 journalists were killed in the region. As in the past, Philippine police made few arrests; suspects in only two of the murders were detained, and authorities had not filed charges in any of the five cases by year’s end. Most victims were low-paid, little-known journalists working in rural areas. Since the restoration of democracy in 1986, more than 40 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines for their work, according to CPJ research. There has not been a single conviction in any of these cases.

Hong Kong celebrated a rare press freedom victory for Asia in July, when popular street demonstrations led to the repeal of drafted government legislation that would have imposed stiff sentences for sedition, subversion, and the theft of “state secrets.” A broad spectrum of journalists, lawyers, and others rallied against the bill’s passage, and on July 1, the sixth anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China, an estimated 500,000 citizens took to the streets in protest. Despite the embarrassment to Beijing, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa managed to survive the politically tumultuous summer and announced in September that he had shelved the proposed legislation indefinitely.

Abi Wright is CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. Sophie Beach, senior research associate for Asia, and A. Lin Neumann, Asia program consultant, contributed to the research and writing of this section.