Press Freedom Violations in Asia at ‘Alarming Levels’

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Press freedom violations remained at “alarming levels” across Asia in 2006, but the proliferation of independent news outlets is a positive development, an international watchdog group said.

Sixteen journalists were killed in Asia last year, while at least 328 were arrested and 517 physically assaulted or threatened, Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, said in its annual report, which was released Thursday.

Seven of the deaths occurred amid separatist fighting in Sri Lanka, the report said.

It said pro-government militias and the army had been responsible for some attacks on members of the media, while the Tamil Tigers have threatened journalists critical of the group’s political position.

The report noted that the Philippines, where six journalists were killed, had made arrests and obtained convictions in some of the cases.

But the report said that the Philippine authorities had failed to stop a continuing wave of anti-media violence, and criticized a number of lawsuits filed against media by the president’s husband.

“Murders, assaults, arrests, abusive lawsuits and censorship were the hallmark of 2006 in this country,” the report said. The report focused largely on censorship, calling it an “Asian custom.”

“There are very few Asian countries which allow absolutely anything to be said or written,” it said.

“Governments in Asia still have a number of laws at their disposal which allow them to imprison journalists for press offenses,” it said, adding that many leaders also use the press as a propaganda tool.

Chief among the report’s offenders was North Korea, where news content is totally controlled by the government and journalists are under police surveillance and work under the threat of re-education.

The report said that Myanmar also imposes an “iron grip” on the media.

In Vietnam and China, where governments also used the press to put out their own messages, some liberal media had emerged — but only to be subsequently suspended, the report said.

The report criticized Thailand’s new military leadership, saying it had shut down hundreds of community radio stations and pressured journalists.

Singapore news media used self-censorship on domestic politics, and the government had stifled opposition through means such as defamation suits, the report said.

It said Singapore’s government had also tried to “browbeat the foreign press into submission in 2006” through defamation cases and media laws requiring legal representation and large cash deposits be made in case of lawsuits.

Independent publications are rare in neighboring Malaysia, where the report said there were strong links between ruling parties and news outlets.

“Media concentration in the hands of the families of government members” had increased in 2006, it said.

On the positive side, the report lauded India for a press that counterbalanced the government.

It also praised Cambodia’s “courageous decision” to decriminalize defamation,” and hailed Indonesia for having dropped the offense of insulting the head of state.

The report praised the increase in private TV channels in Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and India as one of the “genuinely hopeful signs on the continent.”

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