Press Freedom – or not – in Asia


2004.10.25
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Part 1: Media Freedom Most Threatened in East Asia

HONG KONG—Several East Asian countries have scored among the lowest in the world in a recent global media freedom survey, while the United States was ranked just 22nd after mostly northern European countries and New Zealand.

"An independent media either does not exist or journalists are persecuted and censored on a daily basis."

“Such freedom is threatened most in East Asia and the Middle East,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement announcing its third worldwide index of press freedom.

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

Bottom of the class

Stalinist North Korea—where the media are regarded as no more than a propaganda tool in the hands of the ruling party—came in bottom of the 167 countries and territories surveyed

Burma, which is ruled by a secretive military junta which took power in spite of democractic elections, was 165th in the index, with China at 162nd place, Vietnam 161st, and Laos 153rd, the survey found.

“The greatest press freedom is found in northern Europe...which is a haven of peace for journalists,” RSF said. Of the top 20 countries, only three (New Zealand 9th, Trinidad and Tobago 11th and Canada 18th) were outside Europe, it said.

The United States came in at just 22nd in the rankings, which were compiled from a 52-question survey sent to rights activists, journalists, jurists and researchers in 167 countries and regions on the state of press freedom where they lived. General human rights violations were not included.

Military muscle

"The press should not be made a victim of score-settling."

The Burmese media industry has reacted with dismay at the sudden closure of 14 publications close to ousted former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who has been under house arrest since Oct. 19.

“The press should not be made a victim of score-settling,” the Burma Media Association said in an open letter to the new leadership. “We call for the immediate reopening of all these newspapers and an end to advance censorship,” said the letter, which was jointly signed with RSF. Visit RFA’s Burmese service

Authoritarian news values

Chinese leaders have recently called on the media to help expose corruption in the ruling Communist Party and among government officials, and to work harder to reflect the reality of the lives of ordinary people.

But reporters are caught between top-down directives from Party propaganda bureaus and the vested interests of local corrupt officials and criminal organizations.

“The Central Propaganda Department publishes a monthly review,” former Shenzhen Legal Daily editor He Qinglian told RFA’s Mandarin service . “Each regional branch has established special task forces, which systematically monitor and review the local radio stations and newspapers.”

China has spent large sums on setting up an Internet police force, who monitor the nation’s 87 million Web users for “undesirable” content, either pornography and other vice sites, or political discussions and articles critical of the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.

It is particularly sensitive to anti-Beijing sentiment in the Himalayan region of Tibet, where images of the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama are banned, and in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where members of the Muslim Uyghur minority have been jailed for reporting on pro-independence activities.

Visit RFA’s Tibetan and Uyghur services

Fears for the freewheeling south

Fears have grown for press freedom in the former British colony of Hong Kong since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997. Three radio hosts who were critical of Beijing have resigned from the same talk show in recent months, saying they were physically attacked and intimidated. The feisty and popular show, Teacup in a Storm, was permanently taken off the air in early October by the territory’s Commercial Radio station.

Across the border in the Chinese province of Guangdong, where the Cantonese dialect is also widely used, three editors of the cutting-edge Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper have been detained on corruption charges after the paper printed stories that embarrassed local party bosses. Two were imprisoned and one has been removed from his post.

Pawns of the Party

In North Korea, journalists must implement the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s “permanent information plan.”

In a country where journalists can be sent to prison camp and face “re-education” for misspelling a top official’s name, radio and televisions are pre-set and blocked to State frequencies.

Those who listen to foreign radio stations risk imprisonment. Radio sets were recently designated the “new enemies” of the North Korean regime, and the Party launched a crackdown at the end of 2003 on illicit listening. Visit RFA’s Korean service

Next story: Part 2: Behind the Scenes at China’s Official News Machine

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