China Has 'Highly Repressive' Press: Poll

Asia suffers a modest decline in an annual media freedom survey.

A passenger reads a newspaper at a Beijing airport, July 2, 2010.

The level of press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region has fallen, with conditions in China "highly repressive" and with extensive state and Communist party controls also evident in Laos and Vietnam, U.S. human rights group Freedom House said in an annual survey Monday.

The region is also home to two of the survey’s poorest performers, Burma and North Korea, it said, citing a  modest decline in the average score for the Asia-Pacific in the group's latest annual media freedom index assessing the degree of print, broadcast, and Internet freedom.

Only five percent of the region’s population had access to free media, while 46 percent live in "partly free" and 49 percent in "not free" media environments.

"Conditions in the world’s largest poor performer, China, remained highly repressive in 2010," Freedom House said in its report, Freedom in the World 2011, released in conjunction with UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day.

Chinese authorities increased censorship and Communist Party propaganda in both traditional and online media, with a focus on politically sensitive issues like the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo in October, it said.

"Detailed party directives—which can arrive daily at editors’ desks—also curbed coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy," the report said.

Dozens of activists, dissidents, and journalists remained in jail for their writing at year’s end, with minority language journalists facing "special persecution."

Test limits

Nevertheless, Freedom House said, journalists and bloggers continued to test Beijing's limits of permissible expression by exposing official corruption, circulating underground political publications, and engaging in imaginative efforts to circumvent China’s comprehensive Internet filtering system, the so-called Great Firewall.

In the region, the social-networking website Facebook remains unavailable in China and Vietnam.

“What we see in both countries, I believe, is a sort of cat-and-mouse game where there is obviously severe control over news media and the media content, but where people are trying to push back against these very repressive boundaries," said Freedom House senior researcher Karin Karleka.

"So there are definitely controls in place by both governments to hold onto the news agenda. But I would say that activists in both countries are pushing back."

The two countries were among the worst performers worldwide.

Cambodia’s score also deteriorated due to an "aggressive use of disinformation and defamation legislation against journalists, as well as a reduction in media diversity following the closure of an opposition newspaper," Freedom House said.

In Burma, Freedom House saw "marginal improvements" after a new civilian government took over from the military junta after elections in November 2010.

The "improvements" stemmed from "somewhat more open media access" to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi following her release from house arrest last year.

Status changes

Freedom House map of media freedom in 2011.

The region featured two important status changes in 2010. South Korea, which had long hovered at the low end of the "free" range, slipped to a "partly free" designation. Contributing factors included an increase in official censorship as well as government attempts to influence media outlets’ news and information content.

Over the past several years, an increasing number of online comments have been removed for expressing either pro–North Korean or anti–South Korean views.

The current conservative government has also interfered in the management of major broadcast media, with allies of President Lee Myung-bak receiving senior posts at large media companies over the objections of journalists.

Also in 2010, additional pressure on the media in politically turbulent Thailand led to a status downgrade to "not free" from "partly free."

Key factors included the use of the restrictive new Computer Crimes Act to punish online expression, a continued increase in lèse-majesté prosecutions, and periodic violence between political factions that caught journalists in the crossfire and led to censorship of media outlets.

Freedom House said the proportion of the world’s population that had access to a free press declined to its lowest point in over a decade in 2010, as repressive governments intensified their efforts to control traditional media and developed new techniques to limit the independence of rapidly expanding internet-based media.

Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Richard Finney.


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