Asian countries that have granted their media more freedom are finding it hard to put the genie back in the bottle when coverage turns critical, as Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf discovered when he was forced over the weekend to withdraw new curbs on media after nationwide protests.
The wave of democracy that swept across Asia after the Philippines’ 1986 “people power” revolt has generally been accompanied by eased constraints on the media, fostering the emergence of private newspapers, television stations and Internet news sites.
But a report issued last month by the Committee to Protect Journalists has listed Pakistan and Thailand among the top 10 countries worldwide with deteriorating press freedoms. Other countries—including the wide-open Philippines—have also seen recent efforts to rein in coverage, while Myanmar, Laos and Singapore never eased up in the first place.
“When you give people freedom, it’s hard to take it back,” said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia desk for Paris-based reporters without borders.
Media repression occurs around the world—as shown by recent crackdowns in Venezuela and Zimbabwe—but it often seems more jarring in Asia because the region has set such a strong trend of openness. There are some bright spots. The media communities in India as well as those in Australia and New Zealand are huge, noisy and open.
Few problems occur while political climates are cool. But when controversy heats up, the fiery rhetoric of opposition critics and street rallies can dominate the airwaves and front pages, leading governments to curtail coverage they fear will feed a crisis.
Pakistan’s President Musharraf has touted wider media freedoms to counter allegations of authoritarianism.
Yet, he still tried to cover up the outrage over his 9 March suspension of the country’s chief justice Iftikhar M. Chaudhry.
Unhappy with images of protesters calling for Musharraf’s resignation—as he prepares to seek another five-year term in office—broadcasters say they were told verbally to stop live coverage of the rallies. An ordinance amended the media code of conduct to allow offenders to be shuttered and increased fines tenfold.
Journalists defied a ban on rallies in Islamabad to protest what they called ‘censorship and intimidation’. The next day, police initiated a case against about 200 of them.
The ensuing uproar—including an unprecedented protest in Parliament’s press gallery—caused the government to suspend the new ordinance on Saturday and quash the legal case against the reporters. Journalists weren’t in a celebratory mood, though, saying the issue hasn’t been settled.
“Lack of sincerity on the government’s part is evident, as they have not consulted the journalists’ groups for any amicable solution of the media-government row over freedom of press,” said Mazher Abbas, secretary general of the Pakistan union of journalists.
The latest coup plot in the Philippines, in February 2006, led President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to issue a decree that gave the government powers to crackdown on inflammatory media. Police raided a newspaper critical of Arroyo and troops were deployed around the two largest TV networks.
The national union of journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) reported last month that 88 journalists have been killed in the Southeast Asian nation since 1986, when democracy was restored, almost double the number killed during the 14 years of martial rule under late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It said about 50 have been killed since Arroyo took power in 2001.
“The continued assaults on our colleagues and on our freedom and liberties are abetted by a climate of impunity that is the result of official inaction, antipathy and, in many cases, even outright hostility,” said NUJP president Jose Torres.
Sunanda Deshapriya of Sri Lanka’s free media movement group said press freedom “is under serious threat” in a country battered by a long separatist rebellion by Tamil rebels, with nine media workers killed, three newspapers closed down and four journalists detained over the last 12 months. “There is unofficial censorship on war-related news, and the media have been told unofficially to select either the ‘terrorists’ or the government,” Deshapriya said.
Since 1997, at least 11 journalists have been killed, dozens wounded and others threatened in Bangladesh, mainly for reporting on political violence, corruption and organized crime, according to media rights groups.
A military-backed government has ruled under a state of emergency since January.
Several journalists say they have been called in by intelligence officials after they printed stories critical of the government, and told what they should write—and what they should not.
“A kind of self-censorship, which is an inevitable consequence of a culture of fear generated by the state of emergency, is pervasive in the media world,” said Nurul Kabir, editor of the News Age daily.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, executive editor of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, said Thailand’s print media is freer since a military coup last September ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who often filed criminal defamation suits to intimidate journalists. He said the electronic media are more restricted, with some online news outlets being blocked at times for being anti-monarchy, a serious offence in the kingdom. “This will be the battle. The Thai government must learn to deal with online news. They can’t just block websites,” he said.
After the fall of the Taliban, the Afghan media blossomed and was touted as one of the country’s democratic successes. This year, however, journalists have seen a variety of clampdown efforts.
Foreign cameramen had their photos and footage deleted by an American soldier in March after US Marines opened fire indiscriminately on civilians as they left the scene of a suicide bomb attack. The US military claimed the images could have compromised a military investigation.
Three gunmen killed a female owner of a radio station in northern Afghanistan last week, a few days after another female reporter was gunned down in her house.
China, long accused of media suppression, has eased rules on coverage for the 2008 Beijing Olympics by foreign reporters, while continuing repression of its domestic media and Internet essayists, fearing that unfettered reporting could weaken the Communist Party’s authority.
Brossel gave cautious praise to South Korea’s move to dismantle ministry press rooms where local reporters get exclusive briefings—after foreign media are told to leave—creating a close bond and giving them little incentive to compete. Brossel hopes Japan, which has a similar system, will follow suit.