North Korea (180th), China (179th), Vietnam (178th), Myanmar (173rd) – Asia’s one-party regimes and dictatorships are the ones that constrict journalism the most, with leaders tightening their totalitarian stranglehold on the public discourse. Starting with Xi Jinping, who secured a historic third term as China’s leader, ensuring a concentration of power never seen since Mao Zedong, so as to pursue the crusade against journalism he launched ten years ago.
As a result, China is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and press freedom advocates. In this disastrous ranking, it is closely followed by Myanmar, which has become an information black hole since the coup of 1 February 2021.
The other phenomenon that dangerously restricts the free flow of information is the acquisition of media outlets by oligarchs who maintain close ties with political leaders. This is particularly the case in “hybrid” regimes such as India (161st), where all the mainstream media are now owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the same time, Modi has an army of supporters who track down all online reporting regarded as critical of the government and wage horrific harassment campaigns against the sources. Caught between these two forms of extreme pressure, many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves.
The same trend can be found in Bangladesh (163rd) and Cambodia (147th), where governmental persecution of independent media has intensified in the run-up to elections that are due to be held in the coming months.
Another regional specificity is the persistence of off-limit questions and taboo subjects that prevent journalists from working freely. This is clearly the case in Afghanistan (152nd), where the Taliban government does not tolerate no straying from their fanatical version of Sharia and where women journalists are in the process of being literally erased from the media landscape. Elsewhere, the media also know the risks they are taking if they target the sovereign too directly, such as in the sultanate of Brunei (142nd), Thailand (106th), and Bhutan (90th).
On the other hand, changes of government loosened constraints on the media in Pakistan (150th) and the Philippines (132nd), even if these two countries continue to be among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Renewals of government coalitions also explain the progress of countries as Sri Lanka (135th), Malaysia (73rd), and Australia (27th).
At the upper end of the Index, functional democracies such as Taiwan (35th), Samoa (19th) and New Zealand (13th) have perfected their roles as regional press freedom models. One of this year’s surprises is the entry of Timor-Leste, a young democracy still under construction, into the Index’s top 10. This is a positive confirmation of the observation made above about one-party regimes: excessive, ultra-concentrated power is the main obstacle to journalistic freedom. It is when political, economic, and judicial powers are balanced and regulated that press freedom can fully flourish.