Beijing (AsiaNews) – Press Freedom Day was celebrated yesterday around the world. In Asia the focus was on problems too many journalists face such as widespread censorship, death and jail in a context where liberal democracies are largely indifferent to their plight.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 24 journalists have been killed in the world since the beginning of the year—18 in Asia alone, including Turkish editor Hrant Dink who was killed on January 19 as he left his office because of his writings on the Armenian genocide—as well as five media workers. About 125 journalists (half in Asia, 31 in China) and 65 cyber-dissidents (50 in China alone) are in prison.
Countries like China, Syria, Iran, Vietnam and Turkmenistan stand accused of systematically persecuting journalists, but in addition there is an “alarming lack of interest (and sometimes even failure) by democratic countries in defending the values they are supposed to incarnate” as shown by their silence and lack of action towards the killing and imprisonment of journalists.
In March, the International News Safety Institute (INSI), a coalition of media organisations and human rights groups, released a study indicating that a thousand journalists have been killed around the world in the past ten years, 138 in Iraq and 88 in Russia.
“In many countries, murder has become the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome reporting,” INSI’s director Rodney Pinder said.
But short of murder there are other ways of silencing journalists.
In North Korea Dictator Kim Jong-il has imposed total control on news content. Journalists have no choice but to relay grotesque official propaganda.
In 2006 Myanmar’s military junta censored more than a third of the articles and illustrations in privately-owned publications.
In Thailand the military has closed hundreds of local radios.
In Singapore and Malaysia the authorities only award licences to press groups of whose loyalty they are assured.
In China media is tightly controlled. Although murders have taken place like that of Lan Chegnzhang who was beaten to death in January because he was collecting information on working conditions in a coal mine, repression takes other forms. For example, Bingdian Weekly editor in chief, Li Datong, and his deputy, Lu Yuegang, were relieved of their duties in early 2006 after they published an account of the Boxer Revolt different from the official version.
Furthermore, not only does China’s Communist Party control traditional media, now it wants to do the same to internet. More specifically, cyber-dissidents have been arrested and sent to jail. Cyber-cafés have to put up with tight controls, and foreign internet service companies like Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are required to supply the authorities of names and addresses of those who publish online.
In the Middle East political instability has favoured murders and abductions, especially in Iraq and Palestine.
In Saudi Arabia, women journalists face traditional social discriminations and are vulnerable in their work, this according to Sabriya Jawhar, head of the women’s department at the Saudi Gazette. They face working without any rights and privileges, poor salaries, often with no contract protection and must put up with humiliation, fear of job loss as well as segregation from their male colleagues.
Religion is a source of censorship. In Afghanistan and Pakistan criticising religious authorities can lead to blasphemy charges and jail.
In Iran religious authorities have issued ‘death decrees’ against a French journalist and two journalists from Azerbaijan for what they wrote on Islam.
In Pakistan journalists are often the target of threats and violence, especially in the north-western corner of the country where a radical Islamic guerrilla operates. Government authorities however have done nothing to find and punish the culprits.
For US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Pakistan ranks sixth on its list of worse offenders in terms of journalists’ protection and wages. In July 2006, the CPJ interviewed tens of local journalists after the body of journalist Hayatullah Khan was found in June.
Since 2002 seven journalists have been killed. Nothing is known about six others whilst the investigations into their disappearance have gone nowhere.
In Pakistan there are also fears that the government might adopt a law that would impose a monopoly on the press.
Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, archbishop of Lahore and chairman of the Catholic Commission on Media and Communication in Pakistan, told AsiaNews that “today media play an important role in uncovering the truth and circulating correct information”. This work, he insisted, should “not be unnecessarily restricted by governments.”
“The country,” he added, “has few Christian publications . . . and they do a good job despite the limited means at their disposal.”