Dispiriting Year for Press Freedom in Asia

Asia, and especially Southeast Asia, is failing miserably in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, released today (May5), with Taiwan ranking highest in the region at 51st of 180 countries in a list dominated, as usual, by Nordics and European countries. Most of Southeast Asia is clustered around the 140th range. Reporters Without Borders titled the survey “A Great Year for Censorship.”

The reality may be worse than the index makes it appear. Press freedom has been on a downward spiral throughout Southeast Asia in several countries and in fact is the canary in the mine for the wider outlook for democracy itself, which in some countries is precarious at best. In some, like Singapore, the press (ranked 154th and falling), courts and democracy enjoy the theoretical trappings of political freedom but little in reality. The Sultanate of Brunei, never a paragon of press freedom, fell most sharply in the rankings, (155th, down 34), where the gradual introduction of the Sharia and threats of blasphemy charges fueled self-censorship.

In Bangladesh, whose politics resemble a Road Warrior movie, Islamic militants have staged horrific murders of five bloggers, slashing them to death on the street.

At that, there are a couple of bright spots – Sri Lanka, which was ranked 141st, climbed 24 spots after the departure of the Rajapaksa regime, which regularly intimidated journalists and was widely believed to have had some killed “Its journalists no longer have had to fear telephone threats or enforced disappearances encouraged by the Rajapaksa family, especially the former president’s brother, former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” according to the survey. “Its news media also fortunately recovered their former readiness to speak out.”

There seem to be some anomalies. For instance, Thailand, with its press freedom ranked at 136th of 180 nations, is said to be better off than the Philippines at 138th. In fact, the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta that took charge in 2014 in Thailand, regularly rousts editors and publishers, bringing them in for “attitude adjustment” when they don’t toe the government line. Any hope of a free and fair election has largely been extinguished by the junta, which is planning a referendum on a new constitution that severely limits democratic freedoms. Journalists have been warned that the referendum can’t be criticized for threat of jail.

The Philippines, by contrast, which is set to stage a national election on May 9, has one of the most freewheeling media scenes in all of Asia, with 26 Tagalog language papers and 11 English-language broadsheets, admittedly many of them completely irresponsible – as is much of its electioneering. However, some, like the Manila-based Inquirer, do excellent investigative work. The news site Rappler is one of the most effective web-based news organizations in Asia. However, the Philippines fell in the rankings because of the inability of the government to protect journalists. Four were murdered in 2015.

Cambodia, at 128th, inexplicably ranks better than Indonesia at 130th, where highly respected publications like Kompass and Tempo have flourished in the years since the strongman Suharto was deposed. The mainstream press in Malaysia, ranked 146th, is entirely owned by the political parties of the national ruling coalition and as much as possible has ignored 1Malaysia Development Bhd., one of the biggest scandals in Southeast Asia. The Edge newspaper group, which did report exhaustively on the scandal, was silenced for three months by order of the Prime Minister. Edge’s news portal, Malaysian Insider, was driven out of business after being blocked by the Ministry of Communications. Asia Sentinel is one of 30-odd websites that have also been blocked.

In Hong Kong (ranked 69th), the once-respected South China Morning post has been purchased by Web tycoon Jack Ma, who has wasted no time putting his China cheerleader imprint on the paper, which now features tub-thumping front-page interviews with Ma. Ming Pao, the Chinese-language broadsheet, which is in the process of being taken over by mainland Chinese interests, fired its editor, Keung Kwok-yuen, after he published the names of Hong Kong bigwigs whose names appeared in the Panama Papers as having offshore accounts. The 10-year-old conversion of The Standard to a free paper has largely destroyed its utility as a news outlet. It is owned by tobacco tycoon Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s National Consultative Congress.

The only viable English-language publication is the Hong Kong Free Press, a web-based news outlet which was started last year by a young Hong Kong University graduate Tom Grundy. Apple Daily, the flamboyant broadsheet owned by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, is regularly attacked, with many major businesses intimidated from advertising with it despite its immense popularity.

Japan fell 11 places to 72nd after the Diet, the Japanese parliament, pushed through a law on the protection of specially designated secrets took effect in December 2014. Many media outlets, including state-owned ones, succumbed to self-censorship, especially vis-à-vis the prime minister, and surrendered their independence, according to the study.

In South Korea (70th, down 10), relations between the media and government have become much more tense under President Park Geun-hye.

It is in China, ranked 176th, where the press crackdown has been most distressing to rights advocates. “Journalists were spared nothing, not even abductions, televised forced confessions and threats to relatives. In a recent tour of the country’s leading news organizations, President Xi Jinping said the media ‘must love the Party, protect the Party, and closely align themselves with the Party leadership in thought, politics and action.’ He could not have made his totalitarian view of the media’s role any clearer.”

Singapore (154th) suffered the region’s second biggest decline, after the The governments of India (133rd) and Bangladesh (144th) took little action in response to violence against media personnel and were sometimes directly involved in violations of their freedom.

Despite the threats that the constitution and legislation pose to journalists, the media have asserted their independence, improved the public debate and succumbed less and less to self-censorship. A fine Pacific island postcard.