A Dark Year for Press Freedom

A Dark Year for Press Freedom
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

The underlying story in Asia is that most countries in the region are in a 'difficult situation' or a 'very serious situation,' according to the world's press freedom watchdog.

Violations of press freedom are less and less the exclusive prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The France-based NGO has today released its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, detailing that in democracies media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile. “In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators,” the organization says.

Many countries regarded as model democracies, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand, have seen declines in their rankings. “In the span of just a year, the number of countries where the state of the media is considered 'good' or 'fairly good' has fallen by 2.3 percent,” says the global press freedom watchdog, which is also known as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).

Asia in focus

In Asia, the underlying story is that most countries in the region are categorized by RSF as in a “difficult situation” or a “very serious situation.”

China has the region’s second-worst ranking. Worldwide, the only countries to rank lower than China are Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea. Less well-known, however, are countries like Vietnam, which ranks only one place higher than China at 175; Laos, which this year improved slightly to 170; and Singapore, which was ranked 151, up three places from a year earlier.

Among those in Asia to slide in this year’s rankings are Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia.

Still, the region has seen some improvements in rankings, namely in Taiwan and South Korea which moved up six and seven places respectively. Across the region, only Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea are ranked in the top half of the world. RSF is set to open its first Asia office in Taipei.


Asia snapshot

North Korea: 180 (2016: 179)

Headed by Kim Jong-un since 2012, North Korea’s totalitarian regime continues to keep its citizens in a state of ignorance and fear of being sent to a concentration camp for listening to radio broadcasts from outside the country. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is the sole source of official news for the print and broadcast media. Ostensibly, the Korean authorities are displaying greater flexibility towards the international media, allowing more foreign reporters to cover official events. In September 2016, Agence France-Presse even opened a bureau in partnership with KCNA, as the Associated Press did in 2012. However, the regime continues to exercise meticulous control over the information available to the foreign media, as seen when British journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was expelled in May 2016. - RSF

China: 176 (2016: 176)

The planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator, Chinese President Xi Jinping, is the instigator of policies aimed at complete hegemony over news coverage and the creation of an international media order heavily influenced by China. In 2015 and 2016, many citizen journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists, including foreign ones, were arrested and forced into confession. In violation of the “fundamental right to due process,” these confessions were broadcast by the state TV news broadcaster, CCTV, and were reported by the state-owned New China news agency. - RSF

Vietnam: 175 (2016: 175)

As the media all take their orders from the Communist Party, the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and citizen journalists, who are subjected to harsh forms of persecution including violence by plainclothes policemen. To justify jailing them, the Party is increasingly resorting to articles 88, 79, and 258 of the criminal code, under which “anti-state propaganda,” “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state” are punishable by long prison terms. - RSF

Laos: 170 (2016: 173)

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) exercises absolute control over the media. Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media and their self-censorship, Laotians are turning to social media. However, the boom in online news and information platforms is threatened by a 2014 decree under which Internet users who criticize the government and the Marxist-Leninist LPRP can be jailed. - RSF

Singapore: 151 (2016: 154)

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government responds vigorously to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to sue its detractors and apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country. The Media Development Authority has the power to censor journalistic content, both in the traditional media and online. Defamation suits are common in the city-state and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison. The range of issues and public figures that are off limits for the media is growing. Journalists refer to the red lines as “OB markers” (for out-of-bounds markers). – RSF

Malaysia: 144 (2016: 146)

Campaigns led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is still embroiled in the “1MDB” corruption scandal, target journalists and media outlets deemed overly independent and critical of the government. In 2016, government blocking forced the Malaysian Insider news website to close, while the authorities continued to harass cartoonist Zunar. Several proposed amendments would reinforce the already draconian Official Secrets Act and Communications and Multimedia Act, but the Sedition Act continues to be the biggest threat to journalists. - RSF

Thailand: 142 (2016: 136)

Thailand is ruled by a military junta called the National Council for Peace and Order. Ubiquitous, all-powerful, and led by press freedom predator Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Council keeps journalists and citizen-journalists under permanent surveillance, often summons them for questioning, and detains them arbitrarily. Any criticism of the junta is liable to lead to violent reprisals made possible by draconian legislation and a justice system that follows orders. - RSF

Burma: 131 (2016: 143)

After the National League for Democracy’s election victory, Burmese journalists hoped that they would never again have to fear arrest or imprisonment for criticizing the government or the military. However, media freedom unfortunately does not have a place amongst the new government’s priorities. Journalists imprisoned under Thein Sein have been amnestied and the state of emergency law has been repealed, but self-censorship continues in connection to government officials and military officers. The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed. - RSF

Cambodia: 132 (2016: 128)

“Government hostility towards independent media increased in 2016. Journalists can pay a high price for covering illegal logging or trafficking in fish or other natural resources. Defamation and damaging the country’s image are the most frequently used charges. Shortly after well-known political commentator Kem Ley’s murder in July 2016, the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia Daily, and other media outlets were fiercely criticized by relatives of the Prime Minister and received anonymous threats.” - RSF

Philippines: 127 (2016: 138)

Although fewer journalists have been killed in connection to their work in recent years, Philippines continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for the media. Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity. An airtime rental system known as blocktiming is widely practiced, allowing anyone to host their own political program. This in turn blurs the frontiers of journalism. The media are fairly free and diverse, but Rodrigo Duterte, who was sworn in as President in June 2016, has alarmed media freedom defenders with his unveiled encouragement of violence against journalists. - RSF

Indonesia: 124 (2016: 130)

President Joko Widodo has not kept his campaign promises. His presidency continues to be marked by serious media freedom violations, including a lack of media access to West Papua (the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea), where violence against local journalists continues to grow. Foreign journalists and local fixers are liable to be arrested and prosecuted if they try to document the Indonesian military’s abuses there. But, as the Jakarta-based Alliance for Independent Journalists reports, intimidation and even violence by the military against journalists who cover their abuse is not limited to West Papua. Radical religious groups also pose a threat to the right to inform. Many journalists say they censor themselves because of the threat from an anti-blasphemy law and the Electronic and Information Transactions Law. - RSF

Hong Kong: 73 (2016: 69)

Despite repeated warnings by media freedom organizations, the erosion of Hong Kong’s media independence vis-à-vis Beijing is now under way. The media are finding it more and more difficult to cover sensitive stories about the Hong Kong government and Mainland China, and the need to protect their editorial positions from Beijing’s influence is increasingly noticeable. The purchase of Hong Kong media by Chinese Internet companies such as the Internet giant Alibaba is extremely disturbing. The most outspoken journalists, such as those working for the Apple Daily newspaper, are exposed to violence by the Chinese Communist Party’s henchmen.

Japan: 72 (2016: 72)

Media freedom in Japan has been declining ever since Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister again in 2012. What with controversial dismissals and resignations, growing self-censorship within the leading media groups and a system of “kisha clubs” (reporters’ clubs) that discriminate against freelancers and foreign reporters, journalists have difficulty serving the public interest and fulfilling their role as democracy’s watchdogs. Many journalists, both local and foreign, are harassed by government officials, who do not hide their hostility towards the media. - RSF

South Korea: 63 (2016: 70)

The government displayed a growing inability to tolerate criticism, and its meddling in the already polarized media threatened their independence. A defamation law providing for sentences of up to seven years in prison continues to be the main reason for self-censorship in the media. Nonetheless, the series of political scandals in 2016 that led to President Park’s impeachment and removal showed that the media are still able to cover politics effectively and to criticize the country’s institutions when they believe they no longer serve the general interest. The public debate about relations with North Korea, one of the main national issues, is hampered by a national security law under which any article or broadcast “favorable” to North Korea is punishable by imprisonment. This is one of the main grounds for online censorship. - RSF

Taiwan: 45 (2016: 51)

The main threat to media freedom comes from China, which has been exerting growing economic and political pressure on the Taiwanese media. The editorial line of some privately-owned media has changed radically and it is no longer rare to find media outlets taking a line similar to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda. Journalistic independence has also been threatened by Taiwanese officials who have interfered directly in the editorial policies of the state-owned media. - RSF

Editor: Olivia Yang