Freedom of Press

Asia includes the two worst-rated countries in the world, Burma and North Korea, as well as China, Laos, and Vietnam, all of which feature extensive state or party control of the press. Conditions in the world’s largest poor performer, China, remained highly repressive in 2009. Authorities increased censorship and Communist Party propaganda in traditional and online media in the periods surrounding high-profile events, such as politically sensitive anniversaries and a visit by U.

S. President Barack Obama. Dozens of detailed party directives curbed coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy. Journalists investigating corruption or environmental pollution faced a growing threat from physical attacks and politicized charges of bribery, while several activists were sentenced to long prison terms for their online writings.

Nevertheless, journalists, bloggers, grassroots activists, and religious believers scored several victories as they continued to push the limits of permissible expression, including the exposure of corruption, the circulation of underground political publications, and the government’s retraction of orders to install Green Dam monitoring and censorship software on all personal computers. South Asia featured two of the year’s six status changes, and both were positive despite the overall global downward trend.

Following numerical improvements in 2008, Bangladesh moved from Not Free to Partly Free in 2009 as its score jumped to 56 from 63. The generally freer media environment, which followed the lifting of emergency regulations just prior to December 2008 elections that returned a civilian government to power, included some adherence to constitutional protections for press freedom, fewer instances of censorship, and a lower incidence of attacks and harassment. The country also benefited from a recent trend of diversification and growth in private television stations.

Meanwhile, Bhutan’s score moved from 61 to 57, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, to reflect increased media diversity, the expression of more critical opinions by both print and online outlets, and official attempts to uphold press freedom provisions in the 2008 constitution. A significant numerical improvement, from 56 to 50, was noted in the Maldives, where the new, democratically elected government presided over the decriminalization of libel, efforts to increase official openness and access to government information, few instances of censorship, and fewer instances of physical attacks or harassment against journalists.

Moreover, a new journalists’ association was able to comment openly on media freedom issues and help protect reporters’ interests. Also in 2009, India, the freest media environment in South Asia, improved by three points, to 33, due to reforms allowing foreign ownership of print publications as well as a decline in violent attacks against journalists, both in Kashmir and across the country.

Elsewhere in Asia, improvements were noted in East Timor, due to a lower level of violence against journalists and the passage of a new penal code that decriminalized defamation; Indonesia, due to a drop in physical attacks and harassment and less self-censorship by the media; Papua New Guinea, to reflect fewer instances of threats and intimidation, as well as greater media diversity following the establishment of the Sunday Chronicle and online news outlets; and Mongolia, due to a more stable situation following violence and media restrictions that surrounded the 2008 elections.

Declines were noted in a number of countries, though fewer than in previous years. Afghanistan suffered a two-point drop, to 76, due to official attempts to control coverage of the presidential election and President Hamid Karzai’s stalling of a law that would restrict his control over the state-run media. Sri Lanka’s score declined two points, to 72, due to increased harassment of media freedom advocates and the flawed trial of journalist J. S. Tissainayagam, which resulted in a 20-year prison sentence.

In Nepal, increasing attacks on both the means of production and media workers, and an increased level of impunity for the perpetrators, led to a two-point decline, to 59, in 2009. More significant numerical declines were seen in Southeast Asia. The Philippines slid three more points, to a score of 48, to reflect a climate of increased impunity, problems with judicial independence in media-related cases, and increased attacks on journalists covering political events.

In the year’s worst single incident, 29 journalists were killed in a politically motivated ambush in the southern province of Maguindanao. Meanwhile, Fiji experienced the year’s largest score decline, falling from 40 to 54 points due to the abrogation of the 1997 constitution; the imposition of blanket prepublication censorship for both print and broadcast media; and the systematic harassment of selected media outlets, particularly the Fiji Times, including legal cases, the deportation of editors, and a state advertising ban.

The globalization of censorship represents a growing threat to freedoms of expression and the press. Although there has been discussion of a legislative remedy to the practice, libel tourism remains a serious problem in Britain. Foreign business magnates, princes, and other powerful individuals have increasingly turned to the British court system to quash critical research or commentary, a phenomenon that has had a global impact on investigative journalists and scholars.

Meanwhile, Muslim-majority countries have banded together under the umbrella of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in a bid to restrict speech by inserting an antiblasphemy provision into an international human rights covenant. And China has issued threats against book fairs, film festivals, and other cultural and scholarly venues around the world if they plan to feature content that is interpreted as critical of Beijing’s internal policies.