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Press Freedom in Asia
Thursday, 19 May 2011 01:28

The reduction these past few decades in the number of Asia's citizens living in absolute poverty (that is, under $1.25 a day) is astounding.  But how developed is Asia really when freedom of the press is so limited and arguably getting worse?

Excellent insights into this question are provided by the Washington-based Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that monitors the status of freedom around the world.  It calculates a Freedom of the Press index which assesses the degree of print, broadcast and internet freedom in every country in the world.  Ratings are determined based on three criteria: the legal environment in which media operate; political influences on reporting and acccess to information; and economic pressures on content and dissemination of news.

There is an even split between the number of countries with "free", "partly free" and "not free" press, with each group having about one-third of the 196 countries covered.  But only 15% of the world's population live in free press countries, while 42% live in partly free and 43% live in not free countries.  In other words, there are many high population countries like China and India which don't have free press.

Following the end of the Cold War in 1989, there was a sharp jump in global press freedom.  But over the past decade, things have slipped backwards.  The number of people worldwide with access to free and independent media has now declined to its lowest level in over a decade as repressive governments intensified their efforts to control traditional media and developed new techniques to limit the independence of rapidly expanding internet-based media.

A number of key countries like Egypt, Honduras, Hungary, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey and the Ukraine, have experienced significant declines, producing a global landscape in which only one in six people live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

The denial of press freedom and freedome of expression has played a central role in the suppression of broader democratic rights in the Middle East and elsewhere.  In 2010, authoritarian efforts to place restrictions on the press, new media, and other instruments of expression gained momentum in countries like China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.

Which countries have the highest rankings of press freedom?  They are Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg, Andorra, Denmark and Switzerland.  The United States, that eternal advocate of democracy, only comes in at 17th.

No Asian countries make it into the top 20.  Japan comes in at 32nd (a tie with Australia), and Taiwan 48th.  No other Asian countries are regarded as having free press.  In the "partly free" category, there is Hong Kong (70th on the global scale), South Korea (also 70th), India (77th), Mongolia (82nd), Philippines (93rd), Indonesia (108th) and Bangladesh (112th).

Many of Asia's most successful economies are regarded as having a press which is "Not Free".  Countries like Thailand (138th), Malaysia (143rd), Singapore (150th), Vietnam (177th) and China (184th).  Indeed, China is not far ahead of those rogue states Burma (191st) and North Korea (196th).  All three of them have extensive state and party control of the press.

Conditions in China remained highly repressive in 2010.  Authorities increased censorship and Communist Party propaganda in both traditional and online media, with a focus on politically sensitive issues like the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo.  Detailed party directives -- which can arrive daily at editors' desks -- also curbed coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy.  Dozens of activists, dissidents, and journalists remain in jail, with minority-language journalists facing special persecution.

Defenders of these latter regimes will tell you that control of the media is necessary to maintain social and political stability, which are necessary conditions for successful economic development which is beneficial to everyone.  In reality, Asia's economic development is resulting in sharp divisions in society, as the rich are winning more than the poor are.  And as the poor are suffering more from corruption and environmental damage.  Witness the case of Thailand.

These tensions are behind the maintenance or tightening of controls on the media.  As societies develop and become more complex, controlling access to information and public debate becomes more difficult, often requiring even tighter controls like in China.

But as Nobel-prize winner Amartya Sen has argued, economic development is a much broader concept than economic growth.  Economic development means freedom.  People want to have freedom and to be empowered, as well as being able to go shopping in places like Singapore's mega-malls.

Asia still has a long way to go in achieving meaningful economic development.  And NGOs like Freedom House do a very good job in shining the spotlight on this issue.



Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence


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