12 January 2004
Asian media are becoming freer, analysts say, not because of more understanding governments but as a result of the communications revolution
Asian media are slowly winning the battle against authoritarianism and breaking the shackles of censorship thanks largely to technology and economic advancements, industry analysts and watchdogs say.
However they caution government-imposed and self-censorship continue to plague the region while corruption, intimidation and violence often descend on the press as soon as freedoms are gained.
China and Vietnam continue to be among the worst offenders, with Beijing’s current crackdown on the feisty press in the south of the country illustrating the communist rulers’ determination to quash attempts at free expression.
“In both countries obviously all the communists have left is political control,” Bangkok-based Asian consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Lin Neumann, said.
“They are doing everything they can to keep people from using the Internet and the press to challenge the government’s authority,” Neumann said.
According to the CPJ, China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists with 38 members of the press currently imprisoned.
Reporters without Borders said in its just-released annual media summary for last year that 48 “cyber-dissidents” were now languishing in Chinese jails.
But Neumann and other industry monitors agree the Internet, mobile phone text messaging and other new technologies are gradually overcoming the scourge of censorship across Asia, not only in China.
“It’s difficult to exaggerate how extensively it has changed the whole system…it’s not just the Internet, it’s the whole means of communication,” Political and Economic Risk Consultancy managing director Bob Broadfoot said.
In China, authorities have reacted by filtering e-mails, blocking Web sites and ordering Internet service providers to censor their own sites, as well as orchestrating the high-profile and intimidatory arrests of on-line dissidents.
“The arrests of a few prominent Internet users who distribute politically sensitive articles serve as a potent warning to all Internet users,” the CPJ’s senior research associate for Asia, Sophie Beach, said.
But Neumann was adamant the Chinese authorities would not be able to hold back the tide.
“The country’s going so fast and there’s so much money, people are owning computers and accessing the Internet for business and personal use…it’s not possible to micro-manage what people are doing online and eventually I think the party will just give up,” he said.
Elsewhere in Asia there are already many successes such as malaysiakini.com, which has defied widespread government control of the media in Malaysia to become the most popular political Web site in the country.
In Singapore authorities are increasingly being forced to respond to dissent in Internet chat forums that cannot be expressed in the strictly regulated traditional forms of media.
Even in Laos, where the communist regime has complete control over the press, external pro-democracy activists have beaten authorities to the domain name of the major state-run newspaper and publish independent news on vientianetimes.com.
Neumann also pointed to the growing importance of short message service (SMS), or text, messaging on mobile phones, with the technology helping to spread unfiltered news about the SARS in China when authorities first tried to play the crisis down last year.
SMS is especially popular in the Philippines and is regarded as playing a vital role in organizing the political movement that deposed the notoriously corrupt Joseph Estrada from the Filipino presidency in 2001.
“The information flows back and forth by a hand phone in a way that is impossible for governments to deny something is going on,” Neumann said.
Aside from the Internet and mobile phones, media analysts also point to the increasing access to international news through television stations such as CNN and BBC.
Neumann said the growing wealth of Asian nations played another important role in mowing down the barriers of censorship, again citing China as an example.
“I can’t imagine any scenario whereby China can continue along its path of open market reforms and not have to contend with a more open media environment over the medium to long term,” he said.
“I’m optimistic because I think it’s inevitable. I can’t think of an example of a prosperous, open economy that has been able to effectively control the media.”
Neumann acknowledged Singapore, which has lived under the same self-confessed “nanny” government since its independence in 1965, had risen from a third-world nation to first world while muzzling the press.
“But Singapore is a unique example because it’s so small and easy to control. China is too big and chaotic to micro-manage,” he said.
Industry watchdogs were careful to point out that increasing press freedoms had many pitfalls, with corruption one seemingly inevitable problem.
“In a lot of Asian countries — the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand — to get a local journalist to cover something you have to pay them,” Broadfoot said, referring to bribery.
“The bigger and longer-term issues are the journalists are poorly paid. The practice of paying journalists to write stories is not going to go away.”
Violence is another major concern, with the combination of a more aggressive media and general lawlessness in many Asian countries proving extremely dangerous for journalists.
In the Philippines, which has the freest press in Asia, the CPJ’s Beach said more than 40 journalists had been killed since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed and a chaotic democracy installed in 1986.
“In places where corruption is rampant and the rule of law is not respected, the murders or attacks on journalists go unpunished,” she said.