Media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region largely declined over the past year, in authoritarian and democratic countries alike, the global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in an annual report published on Wednesday.
“The media freedom situation worsened significantly or stagnated in most of the Asia-Pacific region,” said the Paris-based NGO, which goes by RSF, the initials of its French name. “The decline affected eastern Asia’s democracies, previously regarded as regional models.”
East and Southeast Asia, home to four of the five remaining communist regimes on earth, fare particularly poorly in RSF annual 180-nation ranking. North Korea was second to last at 179, China stood at 176, Vietnam at 175, and Laos was at 173.
“In China the Communist Party took repression to new heights. Journalists were spared nothing, not even abductions, televised forced confessions and threats to relatives,” said the report by RSF, which has been compiling the rankings since 2002.
Xi's 'totalitarian view'
President Xi Jinping’s recent directive that Chinese media “must love the Party, protect the Party, and closely align themselves with the Party leadership in thought, politics and action,” said RSF, “could not have made his totalitarian view of the media’s role any clearer.”
“‘Making unauthorized criticisms’ is one of the many bans to which journalists are subjected. It reinforces an already formidable arsenal that includes the state secrets law and the criminal code,” said the report.
Hong Kong, a special region of China which enjoys autonomy in certain respects, ranked 69 in media freedom, slightly above South Korea and Japan.
“The media are still able to cover sensitive stories involving the local government and mainland China, but the need to fight to protect their editorial positions from Beijing’s influence is increasingly noticeable,” said RSF, which noted that Chinese businesses were purchasing Hong Kong media and that mainland henchmen had violently attacked outspoken journalists in the former British colony.
In Vietnam, one notch above China in the freedom rankings, “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 the permanent targets of extremely harsh forms of persecution including police violence,” said RSF.
In North Korea, one slot above bottom-dwelling Eritrea, leader Kim Jong Un’s “totalitarian regime continues to keep its population in a state of ignorance,” said RSF.
“Officials monitor visiting foreign reporters closely and prevent them from talking to the general public, who live in fear of being sent to a concentration camp for listening to a radio station broadcasting from abroad,” said the report.
Dangers in Cambodia
In Laos, which slipped two places to 173 in the 2016 ranking, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) “exercises absolute control over the media,” said RSF.
“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media and their self-censorship, Laotians are turning to social media,” it said, warning that a 2014 decree calls for jail sentences for Internet users who criticize the government and LPRP.
The RSF survey ranked Myanmar, which launched its first democratic government last month, at 143, up one notch over last year.
Myanmar’s government “seems to have opted for (closely) monitored freedom instead of the drastic censorship that was in effect until recently. So media that cover political subjects have a bit more freedom,” it said.
“The Burmese-language state media nonetheless continue to censor themselves and avoid any criticism of the government or the armed forces,” said the survey.
RSF put Cambodia at 128, up 11 slots since 2015, but said “the media are all indirectly controlled by the state and are closely watched.”
“Journalists can pay a high price for trying to cover illegal logging, trafficking in connection with the fish industry or trafficking in other natural resources,” said the survey, which noted that the most common charges imposed on reporters are “defamation and damaging the country’s image.”
“It is unfortunately clear that many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement accompanying the 2016 survey.
“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately-owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests,” he said.