Vietnam is close to catching up with China as Asia's biggest oppressor of press freedom. Myanmar has reneged on a promise to draft media legislation that complies with international standards. Media freedom in Laos has stagnated alarmingly.
According to the annual review of freedom of information by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders released Tuesday, even in democratic Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, press restrictions have increased over the last year.
And the United States, considered a beacon of democracy, may not be setting a good example for the others. It has fallen 13 notches, one of the most significant declines, in the watchdog group's 2014 World Press Freedom Index—thanks to increased efforts to track down whistle-blowers and the sources of news leaks.
The index's annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen slightly.
"This year, the ranking of some countries, including democracies, has been impacted by an overly broad and abusive interpretation of the concept of national security protection," Reporters Without Borders' head of research Lucie Morillon said.
China, Vietnam, and Laos were among Asian nations whose rankings dropped this year as they languish among the bottom of the table together with North Korea, which is second to last, just above Eritrea.
China's ranking fell from 173 to 175 as the ruling Chinese Communist Party ramps up online censorship and keeps in jail the largest number of journalists and netizens in the world, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
The Reporters Without Borders report said that China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, which had been largely spared political censorship until recently.
The report lamented that Beijing's increasing media restrictions have made China a "model of censorship and repression."
"Adoption of the model is unfortunately spreading in the region," it said.
Vietnam, which dropped to 174th place from 172nd, has stepped up information controls to the point of being "close to catching up with its Chinese big brother," Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders' U.S. Director, said at a briefing in Washington.
Vietnam remains the world’s second largest prison for bloggers and netizens.
Of the 34 bloggers currently detained, 25 were held since January 2011, when topmost leader Nguyen Phu Trong became the Vietnamese Communist Party's general secretary, the Reporters Without Borders report said.
Hanoi took censorship to a new level in September 2013 by issuing Decree 72 banning the use of blogs and social networks to share information about news developments.
"It shows that the party is waging an all-out offensive against the new-generation Internet, which it sees as a dangerous counterweight to the domesticated traditional media."
The report also questioned whether Myanmar's reforms and democratization under President Thein Sein are beginning to run out of steam as the government struggles to resolve sectarian and ethnic conflicts.
While it hailed the launch of privately-owned daily newspapers as one of the big novelties of 2013 in Myanmar, it said the legislative framework for the country's media has evolved more slowly.
It pointed out that the government's promise to draft media legislation which complies with international standards "has not been kept."
Without any consultation, the government submitted a draft media law to the lower house of parliament last year that would impose clearly "unacceptable restrictions on media freedom" while the printing and publications law and the latest draft of a proposed broadcast media law also "reveal government ambivalence about real respect for fundamental rights."
Cambodia and Laos
Myanmar's ranking rose seven notches to 145 in the global index, but Reporters Without Borders said the country's reform process is nonetheless being watched with great interest elsewhere, especially in neighboring countries such as Laos, where the situation of freedom of information has "stagnated alarmingly;" in Cambodia, "where the authorities are on edge;" and in Vietnam, which is "still in the grip of authoritarian single party rule."
"The governments and population of these countries are following the development of a new regional model of governance in Burma [Myanmar], a model that is still far from proving itself."
The ranking of Laos fell to 171 from 168 and Cambodia's to 144 from 143.
North Korea, one of the hardest countries for the foreign media to cover, remains a news and information "black hole" and a "living hell" for journalists who go there, the report said.
The United States came in for harsh criticism as it plunged to 46th position from 32nd last year amid warnings that investigative journalism is under threat in the country known for its unfettered media freedom.
"Rather than pursuing journalists, the emphasis has been on going after their sources, but often using the journalist to identify them," the report said.
No fewer that eight individuals have been charged under the Espionage Act since Barack Obama became president, compared with three during President George W. Bush’s two terms, it noted.
It also cited the case of National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia after he fled exposing the mass surveillance methods developed by U.S. intelligence agencies.
"2013 will go down in history as being the worst year for for press freedom in the U.S. in modern history," James Risen, an investigative reporters with the New York Times, said at the media briefing.