How press freedom is backsliding across Asia
Freedom of the press is backsliding across Asia as authoritarian leaders demand total control over information. Beijing is meanwhile exerting control over the media in China and outside the mainland, and governments are implementing laws that silence dissenters and motivate self-censorship. Amy Gunia reports.
It’s a decade-long phenomenon, but the grasp of governments over free press has been tighter and tighter in the past five years,” says Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk.
Even in the last year, press freedom has deteriorated in several Asian countries. Some experts say that the recent outbreak of COVID-19 is worsening the situation. The pandemic “has only made it worse, as governments are using the excuse of the virus to put further controls on the press,” says Steven Butler, the Asia Programme Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Suppression of information in China, where the virus was first reported, has had global ramifications, according to RSF, who says that the public might have learned about the seriousness of the virus earlier, perhaps saving thousands of lives and possibly avoiding the current pandemic, if the Chinese press were free.
“Every voice that announced the risk of the epidemic was gagged,” says Cédric Alviani, director of RSF’s East Asia bureau.
Even before the coronavirus epidemic broke out, freedom of the press in China was in a perilous state. China ranked 177 out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index – with only Turkmenistan and North Korea ranking worse. As of December 1, China was the top jailer of journalists, with 48 behind bars, according to the CPJ.
Working conditions for foreign journalists in China worsened significantly in 2019, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China annual report.
“Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before,” the report says. In March 2020, Beijing expelled around a dozen American journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post in the largest expulsion of foreign journalists in recent history.
Experts say that Beijing is attempting to exert control over the media outside of its borders. According to a report released by RSF in March 2019, the Chinese government is actively trying to influence the global media to deter criticism and spread propaganda.
Beijing’s influence appears to be growing in Hong Kong. Activists and journalists whose opinions run contrary to the party line have increasingly been stopped from entering the city, where freedom of speech and press are enshrined in the Basic Law that has governed the city since the handover.
In 2020 alone, at least three people have been denied entry, including the head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth. He attempted to enter the city in January 2020 to launch the organisation’s annual report, which included an opening essay critical of the Chinese government’s “intensifying assault on the international rights system”.
Multiple journalists covering the anti-government protests in Hong Kong also reported incidents of police violence against reporters on the front lines.
Meanwhile, across Southeast Asia, press freedom is under attack. For Singapore, where civil liberties and freedom of speech are already highly restricted, 2019 brought troubling developments. In May, the government passed controversial legislation against “fake news” which HRW called a “disaster for online expression”. Since then, the government has invoked the law several times, in one case asking the opposition party to change online posts about local employment rates.
Thailand passed a draconian cybersecurity law and unveiled an “anti-fake news” centre in 2019, giving authorities sweeping power over online information; HRW has criticised the government for persecuting those critical of their response to the COVID-19 crisis.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte continued his campaign against the news site Rappler by bringing further legal charges against the website’s CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, which rights groups say are politically motivated.
Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN’s franchise is due to expire in May, but its renewal has yet to be approved. The “government is weaponising laws to force the closure of a news media organisation that earned the ire of the powers-that-be”, says Danilo Arao, an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“Duterte is making an example of ABS-CBN so that other news media organisations would toe the line and practise a kind of ‘journalism’ that would be servile and docile.”
Vietnam, where 12 journalists were imprisoned at the end of 2019, was the top jailer of journalists on a per capita basis, according to the CPJ. “Vietnam is in the running for the most dangerous country in Asia for journalists, as far as imprisonment is concerned,” Butler of the CPJ says.
In Indonesia, an internet blackout was imposed following unrest in West Papua in August 2019. Journalists working in the region, which is off-limits to foreign media, reported difficulty doing their jobs. The government named human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, who posted reports about the protests on social media, a suspect for provoking unrest and spreading fake news.
Officials in the country detained American environmental journalist Philip Jacobson over visa issues in late 2019 before deporting him. Jacobson had attended a meeting between the local government and an indigenous rights organisation before his detention.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted nationalism “that spreads hatred against journalists who don’t toe the line,” according to Bastard of RSF.
There were reports of violence against journalists by police during protests late last year against the Hindu nationalist government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, and the CPJ reports that more than a dozen journalists were harassed or physically attacked while covering riots that broke out in February 2020 over the same legislation.
In August of 2019, Modi revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and implemented an unprecedented communications blackout. RSF’s Bastard calls the shutdown “history’s longest ever e-curfew”. He says this prevents “eight million people from accessing the most basic free information, which is now potentially criminal in the context of the coronavirus crisis”.
In Myanmar, authorities reinstated an internet shutdown in five townships in Rakhine and Chin states in February, leaving around 1 million people in an information blackout – particularly damaging in the current pandemic.
Still, there are some bright spots in an otherwise dim landscape. “Taiwan remains a beacon of press freedom, as does [South] Korea,” says Butler of the CPJ. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is still reasonably robust, even as it’s come under assault, mainly from China,” he adds.
Amy Gunia is a reporter for Time magazine in Hong Kong. She is a member of the FCC’s Press Freedom committee.