Safety and freedom of journalists in Asia

A roundup of news from Asia on World Press Freedom Day 2007

By Angilee Shah
AsiaMedia Managing Editor

Thursday, May 3, 2007

UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day was an occasion for dialogue
about the media around the world today. The focus of UNESCO’s program
today is journalists’ safety, a pressing issue for many parts of Asia.

Asia’s deteriorating rights

The Committee to Protect Journalists
(CPJ) says Pakistan and Thailand are among the top ten “backsliders” —
places where press freedom has most deteriorated — in the last five
years. In Pakistan, CPJ says, eight journalists have been killed, but
only one case has seen arrests and convictions. Thailand is cited for
press freedom curbs, including the state takeover of the country’s only
private television broadcaster and blocks on news about the ousted
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, under its military-installed
government.

The Thai government
says that the CPJ report is unfair. A government spokesperson told
reporters that the coup government gives the press more freedom than
Thaksin allowed. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists
said that in 2006 six journalists were killed and six were kidnapped.
They expressed concerned over government scrutiny of private television
channels as well.

Democracy advocacy group Freedom House
called attention to increased censorship stemming from political
instability in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Mixed feelings in the Philippines

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines mourned over 50 journalists they say were killed during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo
today dropped over 40 libel suits he had filed against journalists. He
said he was grateful to those who supported him during a recent heart
surgery. Journalists in the Philippines both welcomed and criticized the announcement.

Solidarity with kidnapped BBC reporter

Journalists in Asia also showed solidarity with the BBC’s Alan
Johnston, the only remaining foreign reporter from a major Western
media outlet in Gaza, who was kidnapped on March 12. The BBC invited
Jakartans to hold a vigil for Johnston. In April, foreign journalists in Pakistan held a protest calling for Johnston’s safe release. Reporters Without Borders expressed concern for journalists kidnapped and held hostage, particularly in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and Afghanistan.

Other events around Asia

Media organizations held events in Jakarta focused on the dangerous environments in which Indonesian journalists work. Reflecting on World Press Freedom Day, The Jakarta Post published an editorial celebrating Indonesia’s freedoms and calling attention to the responsibilities of the press.

Bangladesh’s Commonwealth Journalists Association encouraged dialogue about the safety and sacrifices of journalists. DrikNews in Dhaka held a live webcast of a roundtable discussion about the dangers Bangladeshi reporters face and self-censorship.

In Nepal, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists tracked attacks against journalists and advocacy groups who cover rebel groups.

Journalists from Taiwan
used the occassion of Press Freedom Day to call on the United Nations
to give Taiwanese reporters clearance to cover the upcoming meeting of
the World Health Assembly (WHA).


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Lynette Lee Corporal

BANGKOK, May 3 (IPS) – Blocked websites, banned films, news programmes
taken off the air, self-censorship among traditional media. These have
been the military government’s ‘sins’ since it seized power in September
2006, in the eyes of advocates of freedom of expression and free media
advocates.

”The media have proven to be unreliable in matters regarding pertinent
national issues. We’ve seen almost consistent self-censorship and bias.
Traditional media in Thailand have never been allowed by the government to
be truly free,” said CJ Hinke, a proponent of freedom of expression and a
signatory of the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) campaign
launched in November 2006. Among this group’s goals is to see the total
ban of Internet censorship by Thai authorities.

Former senator and activist Jon Ungpakorn echoes the same sentiment,
saying that broadcast media’s role is particularly important. “The media
have an essential role to play in understanding issues. . . if they
broadcast propaganda or become subservient to political masters, then
we’re facing a real crisis here,” he said.

The current government, installed under military rule, is known for giving
‘directives’ to broadcast media networks not to air issues that threaten
national security, critics say. In the fmonths following the Sep. 19, 2006
coup, all video clips and news about ousted Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra were blocked from news programmes. Exclusive interviews with
Thaksin on international media networks such as CNN and BBC were also
taken off the air.

In March 2007, the military-led government stopped the airing of People’s
Television news programmes about Thaksin. Broadcast via satellite from
Hong Kong, PTV was formed by former members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai
party.

The print media have so far remained unscathed but have borne the brunt of
criticism by civil society activists, who say they have been kowtowing to
the government’s demands and exercising varying degrees of
self-censorship.

Yubol Benjarongkij, dean of the Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of
Communication Arts, said in an interview: “Censorship is not good for the
people. People have every right to talk about issues openly and make
choices based on the facts given them.”

Prachya Pinkaew, president of the Film Directors’ Association, agrees and
believes that the government should not be involved with censorship at
all. As far as films are concerned, the widely acclaimed director of such
films as ‘Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior’ and ‘Tom Yum Goong’ says that movies
should be rated by an independent body. In Thailand, a committee composed
of soldiers, police, doctors and people from the film industry decides if
a movie can be shown with or without cuts, or banned.

”It’s better if films were just rated, because then only adults will be
allowed to watch ‘For Adults Only’ movies. This would be unlike the
present set-up, where most of the time, children still get exposed to,
say, violence because these were not cut by the censors,” he said.

Yubol believes that people care about their freedom to choose. “They’re
probably not as vocal about it because the issues are not being tackled
enough, but they do care,” she said.

Hinke said that their fight is not against the coup per se, but against
“the repression of all political dissent”. He believes that the post-coup
censorship is not any more severe than during Thaksin’s time. “The coup
leaders told us that everything will get better and that they stood for
freedom, but that’s not what we’re seeing here,” he said.

Hinke, a longtime resident of Thailand, added: “Letters to the editor have
always been ineffective. The people do not have a public place to have
discussions so they have turned to the Internet, but that too is being
blocked.”

TiTV reporter Suphajon Klinsuwan, however, maintains that many people do
not believe in the accuracy of information on the Internet when it comes
to facts on national issues. Besides, he added, “Internet access and
awareness in Thailand is still low”. The English-language daily ‘The
Nation’ reports that there are some 10 million Internet users in a country
with a population of 62 million.

Although it has not escaped the eye — and the ire — of government
censors especially in matters of national security, the Internet is still
seen by Netizens as the ‘last frontier’ where freedom of expression can
still be exercised. That is, if its advocates win the ongoing ‘cat and
mouse’ game.

While the brouhaha seems to have died down over the blocking in Thailand
of You Tube on Apr. 4 due to material that is widely believed to be an
attack on the monarch, critics have expressed fears about the future of
Internet censorship. The site remains inaccessible after Google Inc, You
Tube owner, refused the Ministry of Information and Communication
Technology’s (MICT) request to remove the offending clip. Subsequently,
the owner of the video removed it, but reports say more copies spread like
wildfire in the site.

Since the military took power, political sites such as
http://www.19sep.org, which was set up after the coup and
http://www.pulo.org, which belongs to the banned Pattani United Liberation
Organisation (PULO), remain blocked.

According to MICT deputy permanent secretary Maneerat Plipat, 90 percent
of blocked sites in Thailand are pornographic ones. “We are only capable
of blocking 2,000 sites as we do not have the capability and staff to
monitor the Internet 24/7,” she said, contradicting the figure of 13,388
sites that FACT recorded on Jan. 11 as blocked.

“We are not against the Internet, but we have to educate the public how to
use it properly and protect them from cyber criminals. Admittedly, it is
popular among the younger generation and it will be a trend in the future
but not right now,” she said.An Internet bill is pending in the National
Legislative Assembly.

What the 507 signatories of FACT’s petition against censorship in media
say they are concerned with, however, is what they call a lack of
transparency about MICT actions. “None of the officials in the ministry
will provide information about the criteria for blocking, the people
authorised to block, or how they are doing it,” said Hinke.

Besides, added Hinke, blocking each and every site will prove useless
given that there are 5 to 7 billion webpages on the Net, 2 billion active
webpages, 120 million blogs and 10 million pornographic sites. “Even if we
dedicate the entire national budget of Thailand, it’s never going to be
effective,” he said.

For Hinke and other activists, it boils down to teaching people to make
responsible and informed choices. “It’s the same as watching television —
you don’t like it, change channels. That’s responsible censorship and it
doesn’t have to be done by the government,” he said.
(END/2007)

among the places worldwide where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. Ethiopia, where the government launched a massive crackdown on the private press by shutting newspapers and jailing editors, leads CPJ’s dishonor roll. The African nations of the Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo join Russia and Cuba among the world’s worst “backsliders” on press freedom.

“Democracy’s foothold in Africa is shallow when it comes to press freedom,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “These three African nations, as diverse as they are, have won praise at times for their transition to democracy—but they are actually moving in reverse on press issues. Journalists in Ethiopia, Gambia, and DRC are being jailed, attacked, and censored, a picture far worse than what we saw only a few years ago.”

In issuing its report to mark World Press Freedom Day,
May 3, CPJ is calling attention this year to long-term erosion in press
conditions. Rounding out CPJ’s “Top 10 Backsliders” are Pakistan,
Egypt, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Thailand.

New York, May 2, 2007—Three nations in sub-Saharan Africa are
among the places worldwide where press freedom has deteriorated the most over

the last five years, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists has
found. Ethiopia, where the government launched a
massive crackdown on the private press by shutting newspapers and jailing
editors, leads CPJ’s dishonor roll. The African nations of the Gambia and
the Democratic Republic of Congo join Russia and Cuba among
the world’s worst “backsliders” on press freedom.

“Democracy’s foothold
in Africa is shallow when it comes to press freedom,” said CPJ Executive
Director Joel Simon. “These three African nations, as diverse as they are, have
won praise at times for their transition to democracy—but they are actually
moving in reverse on press issues. Journalists in Ethiopia, Gambia, and DRC are
being jailed, attacked, and censored, a picture far worse than what we saw only
a few years ago.”

In issuing its report to mark World Press Freedom Day,
May 3, CPJ is calling attention this year to long-term erosion in press
conditions. Rounding out CPJ’s “Top 10 Backsliders” are Pakistan,
Egypt, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Thailand.


 Audio Slide
Show


CPJ’s Robert Mahoney tells
the backstory of
“Backsliders”

The backsliders reflect a mixture of relatively open countries that have turned increasingly repressive
and traditionally restrictive nations where press conditions, remarkably, have worsened. Nations such as Thailand and Morocco have been considered press freedom leaders in their regions but have charted sharp declines over the past five years. Other countries such as Cuba have long had poor records but have
ratcheted up press restrictions through widespread imprisonments, expulsions, and harassment.

“The behavior of all of these countries is deeply
troubling, but the rapid retreats in nations where the media have thrived demonstrate just how easily the fundamental right to press freedom can be taken away,” Simon added.

To determine trends in press conditions, CPJ
analyzed case data worldwide for the years 2002 through 2007. Its staff judged conditions in seven categories: government censorship, judicial harassment,
criminal libel prosecutions, journalist deaths, physical attacks on the press, journalist imprisonments, and threats against the press. CPJ staff excluded from consideration major conflict zones such as Iraq and Somalia, which lack conventional governance and newsgathering.

Patterns that emerge from
CPJ’s analysis include:

Authorities in several countries are silencing critical coverage by imprisoning journalists. Cuba and Ethiopia became two of the world’s leading jailers of journalists in the past five years.
Morocco, often cited as a regional model for press freedom, is now tied with Tunisia for the dubious distinction of sentencing the most journalists to prison in the Arab world.

Violent attacks are going unpunished in many of these countries. In Pakistan, eight journalists have been slain in the last five years, but arrests and convictions have been won in only one case. In Russia, 11 journalists have been murdered in the last five years, but no case has been solved.

Judicial harassment is being used increasingly in many of these nations. In Egypt, 85 criminal cases were launched against journalists between 2004 and 2006. In DRC and Azerbaijan, criminal defamation prosecutions are rising. And in Morocco, politically motivated lawsuits have effectively sidelined a number of the country’s most outspoken editors.

Censorship orders and restrictive legislation are being used in several nations. In Thailand, the new military junta issued broad censorship orders for broadcast outlets. In the Gambia, authorities have shut down a leading independent newspaper. And in Russia, the president signed a law equating critical coverage with “extremism.”

Escalating government attacks in Morocco and Egypt have coincided with increasing assertiveness on the part of independent publications.

Here are CPJ’s “Top 10 Backsliders.” The figures cited are annual unless noted.


1. ETHIOPIA

Leader: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Indicators: Imprisonments rise from two to 18. Dozens forced into exile. In 2006 alone, authorities ban eight newspapers, expel two foreign reporters, and block critical Web sites.

Key fact: Only a handful of private newspapers now publish, all under intense self-censorship.

2. GAMBIA

Leader:
President Yahyah Jammeh

Indicators: Editor Deyda
Hydara murdered in 2004. The Independent, a leading newspaper, is targeted by arsonists and closed by the government. Criminal penalties instituted for defamation.

Key fact: Eleven journalists jailed for extended periods in 2006.

3. RUSSIA
Leader:
President Vladimir Putin

Indicators: All three national television channels now
under state control. Eleven journalists murdered in the last five years; no cases solved. Imprisoned journalists rise from one to three.

Key fact: New law defines “extremism” as including “public slander toward figures fulfilling state duties.”

4. DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Leader: President Joseph Kabila

Indicators: Two journalists slain since 2005. Attacks increase from three to nine. Criminal
libel cases rise from none to nine. Imprisonments climb from three to 11.

Key fact: Leaders of press freedom group Journaliste en
Danger forced into hiding in 2006.

5. CUBA

Interim leader:
Gen. Raúl Castro Ruz

Indicators: Twenty-nine journalists imprisoned in massive 2003 crackdown. Four foreign journalists expelled after covering 2005 opposition meeting. Another 10 barred entry when Fidel Castro becomes ill in 2006.

Key fact: Cases of government harassment increase in the past year.

6. PAKISTAN

Leader: President Pervez Musharraf

Indicators: Eight journalists killed in the last five years. At least 15 journalists abducted in that time. Government
security agents interrogate reporters who interview Taliban figures.

Key fact: Government’s own Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence is suspected in some abductions.

7. EGYPT

Leader:
President Hosni Mubarak

Indicators: Government agents assault reporters covering demonstrations. Editor Reda Helal disappears in 2003. First Internet blogger sentenced to prison. Top editor Abdel Halim Kandil abducted and assaulted in 2004.

Key fact: Egyptian Organization for Human Rights says 85 criminal cases launched against press between 2004 and
2006.


8. AZERBAIJAN

Leader: President Ilham Aliyey

Indicators: Editor Elmar Huseynov slain in 2005. Criminal defamation cases rise from one to 14. Imprisonments climb from none to five. Two top journalists kidnapped in 2006.

Key fact: Editor Eynulla Fatullayev receives death threats after investigating Huseynov murder.

9. MOROCCO

Leader: King Mohammed VI

Indicators: Morocco joins Tunisia as Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists, with three sentenced to prison terms. Authorities banish three top journalists through politically motivated lawsuits. State media and government incite protests against independent press.

Key fact: Editor Ali Lmrabet barred from profession for 10 years.

10. THAILAND

Leader: Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont

Indicators: New military junta nationalizes Thailand’s only private television station and orders radio stations to broadcast military-prepared news. Foreign news broadcasts blocked when former prime minister is mentioned.

Key fact: New constitution is being drafted. Press guarantees uncertain.

Photos: Aliyev, AFP; Castro, AFP; Chulanont, AFP;
Jammeh, Reuters; Putin, AFP, Kabila, AFP; King Mohammed VI, AFP;
Mubarak, Reuters; Musharraf, AFP; Putin, AFP; Zenawi, AFP. Digital
photo effects by Mick Stern/CPJ.

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