Asia’s four Communist regimes, North Korea (177th place), China (171st), Vietnam (165thj) Laos (168th), are among the fifteen lowest-ranked countries of the 2010 World Press Freedom Index. Ranked just one place behind Eritrea, hellish totalitarian North Korea has shown no improvement. To the contrary: in a succession framework set up by Kim Jong-il in favour of his son, crackdowns have become even harsher. China, despite its dynamic media and Internet, remains in a low position because of non-stop censorship and repression, notably in Tibet and Xinjiang. In Laos, it is not so much repression which plagues this country of Southeast Asia as its single party’s political control over the whole media. On the other hand, Vietnam’s Communist Party – soon to hold its own Congress – and its open season against freedom of speech is responsible for its worse than mediocre ranking.
Among the last thirty countries of Reporters Without Borders’ Index are ten Asian nations, notably Burma, where the military junta have decided that the prior censorship system will be maintained despite the upcoming general elections in November.
India’s and Thailand’s rankings drop due to a breakout of serious violence
Political violence has produced some very troubling tumbles in the rankings. Thailand (153rd) – where two journalists were killed and some fifteen wounded while covering the army crackdown on the “red shirts” movement in Bangkok – lost 23 places, while India slipped to 122nd place (-17) mainly due to extreme violence in Kashmir. The Philippines lost 34 places following the massacre of over thirty reporters by partisans of one of Mindanao Island’s governors. Despite a few murderers of journalists being brought to trial, impunity still reigns in the Philippines. Also in Southeast Asia, Indonesia (117th) cannot seem to pass under the symbolic bar separating the top 100 countries from the rest, despite remarkable media growth. Two journalists were killed there and several others received death threats, mainly for their reports on the environment. Malaysia (141st), Singapore (136th) and East Timor (93rd) are down this year. In short, repression has not diminished in ASEAN countries, despite the recent adoption of a human rights charter.
In Afghanistan (147th) and in Pakistan (151st), Islamist groups bear much of the responsibility for their country’s pitifully low ranking. Suicide bombings and abductions make working as a journalist an increasingly dangerous occupation in this area of South Asia. And the State has not slackened its arrests of investigative journalists, which sometimes more closely resemble kidnappings.
Democratic Asian countries gain ground
Asia-Pacific country rankings can be impressive. New Zealand is one of the ten top winners and Japan (11th), Australia (18th) and Hong Kong (34th) occupy favourable positions. Two other Asian democracies, Taiwan and South Korea, rose 11 and 27 places respectively, after noteworthy falls in the 2009 Index. Although some problems persist, such as the issue of the state-owned media’s editorial independence, arrests and violence have ceased.
Some developing countries have managed to make solid gains, particularly Mongolia (76th) and the Maldives (52nd). As a rule, the authorities have been respectful of press freedoms, exemplified by their decriminalisation of press offences in the Maldives.
An occasional ranking in this Index can be deceptive. Fiji (149th), for example, rose three places, even though the government has passed a new liberticidal press law. The year 2009 had been so tragic, with soldiers invading news staff offices, that the year 2010 could only seem to be somewhat more tranquil. Sri Lanka (158th) jumped four places: less violence was noted there, yet the media’s ability to challenge the authorities has tended to weaken with the exile of dozens of journalists.
In this Index based upon violations of press freedoms, Asia, has earned a low ranking for yet another year. Even when a country’s press enjoys freedom, too often it also has to endures violence from non-governmental actors. When the press lives under the control of an authoritarian regime, it is obliged to censor and to self-censor. Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years behind bars for denouncing this situation – a struggle which was rewarded by the Nobel Peace Prize – bringing new hope to the Asia-Pacific area.