by Abi Wright
Threats to press freedom spiked throughout Asia in 2004, even as the news media claimed significant accomplishments. Across the region, 2004 was an election year, with citizens casting ballots in nations such as Afghanistan, whose landmark vote was peaceful and orderly, and India, where more than 370 million went to the polls. Informing voters and guarding against abuses, the press was credited with playing key roles in these and other elections.
But at year’s end, Asian journalists faced their greatest challenge in covering an earthquake and tsunami that wrought unprecedented devastation from India and Sri Lanka to Thailand and Indonesia. Hardest hit was Indonesia’s restive Aceh Province, where the region’s sole daily newspaper lost many of its staff.
Throughout 2004, Asian journalists endured assaults from criminals, political figures, and warring factions. In the courts, members of the media faced harassment and worse from antiquated criminal defamation laws and governments eager to silence criticism, often in the name of national security. And in countries from North Korea to Burma, authoritarian rulers kept an unyielding grip on power and the press.
A pattern of brazen attacks on the press by underground guerrilla groups, corrupt officials, and criminal gangs intimidated journalists in Bangladesh, where CPJ mounted a public campaign against that country’s culture of impunity. Two veteran journalists and press freedom activists, Manik Saha and Humayun Kabir, were brutally murdered in bomb attacks in the country’s lawless southwestern Khulna District. After a weeklong mission to Bangladesh to evaluate press freedom conditions there, CPJ named the country one of the 10 worst places in the world to be a journalist.
In the Philippines, assassins targeted reporters in bloody reprisal for their work in ever mounting numbers. At least eight journalists, mostly rural radio reporters, were murdered in connection with their work, making 2004 the deadliest year for the Philippine press since the 1980s. The toll was surpassed only in Iraq, where journalists were covering a war.
Philippine journalists attribute the rise in violence to a nationwide breakdown in law and order, the wide circulation of illegal arms, and the insidious effect of the failure to convict a single person in the murders of 48 journalists since democracy was introduced there in 1986. In several cases in 2004, victims were ambushed and gunned down on isolated roads. Radio commentator Elpidio “Ely” Binoya, for instance, was killed in June by two motorcycle-riding assailants on the outskirts of General Santos City. They chased him down and shot him repeatedly from behind.
In Sri Lanka and Nepal, journalists were frequently caught in the crossfire of civil conflicts. Two journalists were fatally shot in Sri Lanka. Local journalists said they were deliberately targeted by different factions of the country’s Tamil rebel group, the LTTE, which split in the spring. In Nepal, the abduction and killing of journalist Dekendra Raj Thapa by Maoist rebels highlighted deteriorating conditions for jour-nalists in Maoist-controlled rural areas.
Reporters in China have been assaulted in increasing numbers as they continue to test boundaries by writing in-depth accounts of local crime and corruption. As CPJ documented in an August special report, such violence, once rare, is on the rise, with dozens of reported cases. Some insurance companies now list journalism as the third most dangerous career in the country, after police work and coal mining.
But arrest and imprisonment–threats that China’s journalists have historically faced in a tightly proscribed media environment–remain the largest problem. Authorities maintained a revolving prison door for journalists, releasing seven imprisoned writers and editors this year while jailing others. The country retained the ignominious distinction of being the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 42 behind bars.
Several high-profile arrests in China illustrate the regime’s continuing intolerance for independent reporting. The imprisonment of editors from Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), a popular Guangzhou newspaper known for its cutting-edge reporting on SARS and police abuse, demonstrated the limits of official tolerance for aggressive journalism. In March, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Yu Huafeng and a former editor, Li Minying, were sentenced to prison terms of 12 and 11 years, respectively, on spurious corruption charges.
The September detention of New York Times‘ Beijing bureau researcher Zhao Yan on suspicion of “providing state secrets to foreigners” sent another disturbing message to the domestic and international press corps.
The press in Hong Kong also suffered setbacks in 2004. As Beijing-backed candidates won local legislative elections handily, three local radio commentators resigned in response to what they claimed were threats and pressure to stop pro-democracy broadcasting.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and his administration used aggressive tactics to intimidate journalists who covered sensitive subjects. Freelance journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi was arrested in December 2003 and secretly held until January 24, 2004. Pakistani state television repeatedly aired so-called news items that cast him as an enemy of the state for helping two French journalists report about Taliban activity in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
In Afghanistan, press conditions improved, the number of news outlets expanded, and an emerging culture of independent journalism continued to develop. In its coverage of the nation’s first direct election in October, the press was credited with successfully educating voters and monitoring election-day events. But a lack of security and a spike in ethnic and cultural tensions interfered with reporting and put journalists in danger. Warlords, armed groups, security services, and government ministries threatened and harassed journalists.
Behind the scenes and in the courts, journalists across Asia also battled more indirect pressures. In Pakistan, Musharraf’s government showed a willingness to cut off state advertising to publications that challenged or criticized its policies. In Indonesia and Thailand, high-profile criminal defamation lawsuits demonstrated the limits of the democratic reforms undertaken in recent years.
The Thai Post, three of its editors, and media activist Supinya Klangnarong were targeted with criminal complaints and a massive 400 million baht (US$10 million) civil lawsuit after the newspaper published her critical remarks about telecommunications giant Shin Corp. and its connections to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In Indonesia, Bambang Harymurti, chief editor of the influential magazine Tempo, was convicted of criminal libel in September and sentenced to one year in prison. Two colleagues were acquitted in the trial, which stemmed from a 2003 article citing allegations that a powerful businessman stood to profit from a textile market fire. Harymurti’s appeal was pending at year’s end.
The authoritarian governments of Burma and Vietnam released several imprisoned journalists in 2004 and early 2005, but these were seen as conciliatory gestures and not indicative of a change in free-speech policy. CPJ honored two imprisoned Burmese journalists–Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun (also known as Nyein Thit)–with International Press Freedom Awards in November. The documentary filmmakers were arrested in 1999 while working on a film portraying forced labor and hardship in rural areas.
Two journalists and their assistant, detained since 2002 in the island archipelago nation of the Maldives off the coast of Sri Lanka, were under house arrest at the end of 2004 after enduring harsh conditions in prison, where sources allege they were mistreated despite President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s pledges of democratic reform.
In South Korea and Taiwan, journalists faced more subtle challenges. While the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan strengthened its financial influence on the media, the ruling party in South Korea proposed media ownership regulations that seemed intended to penalize conservative dailies for their antagonistic editorial stance toward President Roh Moo Hyun.
The expansion of the Internet throughout Asia tested authorities’ ability to limit free expression while giving rise to innovative forms of journalism, such as the thousands of South Korean “citizen-journalists” who file reports for Ohmynews.com. In China and Vietnam, the Internet provides a significant outlet for independent writing that expands every year and is increasingly difficult for authorities to control.
Local activism played a critical role in defending journalists’ rights in many Asian countries and helped secure the release of imprisoned journalists Du Daobin and Cheng Yizhong in China, as well as Munawar Mohsin in Pakistan. Nepalese journalists’ outrage at their treatment by government forces and Maoist rebels forced leaders on both sides to review their actions and vow additional safeguards. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines organized nationwide rallies to protest the ongoing killings of journalists there, pressuring authorities to take a more aggressive stance.
In many parts of Asia, the press played an effective watchdog role in 2004, from China, where journalists exposed crime and corruption, to Indonesia, where they aggressively covered crony capitalism, to Afghanistan, where the press helped legitimize national elections. But governments are deeply ambivalent about this and are either acting to curtail the press or turning a blind eye to murderous attacks on journalists. For now, the Asian press is developing at a quicker pace than many of the institutions needed to protect and enhance it.
Abi Wright is CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. Kristin Jones, research associate for Asia, contributed to the research and writing of this section.