Asia may be home to media-unfriendly countries such as North Korea and China, but a new survey by U.S.-based Freedom House shows the region's press and Internet freedom levels improving as a whole.
Burma made "significant advances" due to broad political reforms and Thailand moved into the "partly free" category from "not free," while "numerical improvements" seen in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nepal were balanced by declines in India and Pakistan, Freedom House said in a report that reviewed developments in 2011.
Burma released imprisoned bloggers, softened on official censorship, and had fewer reports of harassment and attacks against journalists, the independent watchdog said.
The Southeast Asian nation also saw an increase in the number of private media outlets, which led to somewhat more diversity of content and less self-censorship, the report said. In addition, a number of exiled journalists were able to return to the country.
Despite the improvements, with a media environment that remains restricted with censorship controls, Burma is still regarded as "not free" by Freedom House as the country begins to emerge from decades of brutal military rule.
"Even though there was improvement in Burma, it's still a restricted media environment with various forms of censorship controls, still with political prisoners and some journalists in jail," Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Freedom House's project director for Freedom of the Press 2012, told RFA.
Other Asian countries remaining in the "not free" category are China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Brunei, according to the report, titled "Freedom of the Press 2012: A Global Survey of Media Independence."
Freedom House's worst-rated country in the world was North Korea and the world’s largest poor performer was China.
In China, the authorities retain blocks on foreign social media platforms like Twitter and tighten controls on investigative reporting and entertainment programming in advance of a sensitive leadership change scheduled for 2012, the survey showed.
Detailed party directives—which can arrive daily at editors’ desks—also restrict coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy, among other issues.
Despite the robust censorship apparatus, Chinese journalists and millions of Internet users continue to test the limits of permissible expression by drawing attention to incipient scandals or launching campaigns via domestic microblogging platforms, the report said.
Thailand, which in 2010 was downgraded to "not free," moved back into the "partly free" range due to a calmer political situation that enabled expanded reporting on elections, greater space for dissent and coverage of sensitive topics, and a significant decrease in violence against journalists.
Following the end of a state of emergency in late 2010, journalists were better able to cover the news across the country, though access to the restive southern provinces remained restricted, the report said.
Despite Thailand’s overall upgrade, the judicial environment deteriorated toward the end of 2011, with increasingly frequent and harsh applications of the lèse-majesté law and the creation of a new Internet security agency that can implement shutdowns more quickly and with less oversight, it said.
Indonesia saw reduced restrictions on the broadcasting authority and press council, less official censorship, and greater ability for journalists to cover news events freely in most of the country, according to the report.
The Philippines continued to make gains after a major decline in 2009—due to a reduction in violence against journalists, attempts by the government to address impunity, and expanded diversity of media ownership.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.