Asia Still Dangerous for Journalists

BANGKOK – It may have one of the most vibrant media environments in Asia – with journalists having freedom to write just about anything – yet the Philippines ranks after Iraq as one of the deadliest places for reporters.

Eight journalists have been killed in that Southeast Asian archipelago this year, one more than the seven who were murdered in 2003.

In Iraq, on the other hand, 18 journalists have been killed while on duty this year.

This disturbing reality is one of the revelations made this week by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) or Reporters without Borders, in a report that has condemned Asian countries for having one of the most hostile environments for journalists in the world.

Other Asian countries where journalists were killed in 2004 included Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the media watchdog noted in its third-annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

The global death toll of journalists is 44 this year, four more than the 40 killed in 2003 and 18 more than the 26 killed in 2002, according to RSF.

Besides the high number of murdered journalists, Asia also gains notoriety for having some of the world’s "biggest prisons for journalists" – with close to half of the 128 journalists jailed worldwide being from this region.

Cyber dissidents in the region are in a worst climate, states the RSF report, with 66 of the 68 such dissidents in prison being Asians.

The main offender is China, which has imprisoned 26 journalists, including Chen Renjie for over 21 years, and placed 59 cyber dissidents behind bars.

Its Southeast Asian neighbors Burma and Vietnam have also been singled out by the media watchdog for locking away journalists and cyber dissidents. While Burma has imprisoned 11 journalists, including Thien Tan since 1990, Vietnam has imprisoned three journalists and four cyber dissidents.

"There was so much hope toward the end of the 1990s that the situation for journalists in the region would improve, but it has turned to be a disappointment," Philippe Latour, Southeast Asia representative of RSF, told IPS.

"The little progress we witnessed has stagnated and I don’t think things will get better in places like Burma," he added.

The threats to journalists have come from many quarters, Kulachada Chaipipat of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, a regional media watchdog, told IPS. They include governments, powerful business interests and even the judiciary.

What is worse, she adds, the perpetrators of crimes against journalists are rarely brought to book. "We have not seen the people behind the killings of journalists in the Philippines taken to court."

In some countries, a weak judiciary has done little to enforce laws dealing with media freedom or to deliver judgments that enhance the growth of a free press in the region.

The most recent victim was Bambang Harymurti, chief editor Tempo, a leading Indonesian news magazine. He was sentenced to one year in prison in September for libeling a millionaire businessman in a report that revealed the tycoon’s role behind a fire that destroyed a textile market in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last year.

The decision was "a sham," wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, an editor and columnist on Asian affairs in The Nation, an English-language daily in Thailand, soon after the verdict was given. "Simply put, the ruling went against the vibrant democratization process that has been going on in Indonesia since the downfall of [Indonesian] president Suharto in 1998."

"It is imperative that the regional media community be proactive and work to ensure that the region’s governments abolish defamation laws," he added.

The prevalence of such a paradox in Indonesia, where RSF notes there are growing signs of a free media culture, like the Philippines, is true in other realms across Asia, too.

For instance Singapore, by far the most developed and wealthiest of the Southeast Asian countries, is ranked among the countries having the worst press freedom records by RSF.

The city-state rubs shoulders with communist-ruled Laos and Vietnam as it finds itself 147th out of 167 countries, with the worst offenders being North Korea, ranked 167th, Cuba, 166th, and Burma, ranked 165th.

"In these countries, an independent media either does not exist or journalists are persecuted and censored on a daily basis," states the report. "Freedom of information and the safety of journalists are not guaranteed."

On the other hand, two of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, East Timor and Cambodia, earn a place among countries where there is a healthier media climate. The newly independent East Timor is 56th in the RSF ranking and Cambodia is 109th.

"Singapore is hostile to a free media," says RSF’s Latour. "There is a monopoly on the press and the controlling company is linked to the state. And there are a number of taboo subjects."

It is much better in Cambodia, he added, where there is space for a free press to function but "there are limits on the freedom of expression."

China also conveys the paradox of media freedom that runs through Asia, states the RSF report. "China still scores very low [162nd] despite the growth of print and broadcast media, since the ruling Communist Party has used violence to indicate the lines that must not be crossed."

Author: Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar writes for Inter Press Service.