Asia world’s biggest prison for press

3 May 2004

Asian nations detained more than 200 journalists last year, while three were condemned to death and at least 16 murdered, Reporters Without Borders said Sunday, accusing governments of torture and censorship.

“More than 200 journalists were detained in Asia, making it by far the world’s biggest prison for the press,” said the media watchdog’s annual report, in which few Asia-Pacific nations escaped criticism.

In May 2004, 27 journalists were in jail in China, second only to Cuba’s 29, the group said, and while 11 were imprisoned in Myanmar. Four journalists were arrested in Pakistan over the year.

Nepalese security forces arrested, detained, tortured or threatened about 100 journalists in 2003, said the report by the head of the body’s Asia desk, Vincent Brossel.

Those in detention were “subjected to such torture as repeated violent blows to the soles of the feet, forced submersion in water and electric shock… Some were forced to spend weeks with a hood over their head and face.”

Journalists were also tortured in Pakistan and Myanmar, it said.

In Myanmar, Zaw Thet Htwe, the editor of a football magazine, was condemned to death “on the trumped-up charge of ‘attempted assassination of military junta leaders’.”

And in Afghanistan the editor of an independent weekly and one of his journalists “were the object of a religious fatwa after calling for a secular political system.”

Of the 16 journalists killed in the region, seven were in the Philippines who were murdered by contract killers, mainly in the troubled southern island of Mindanao, it said.

In Cambodia the presenter of a royalist radio state was gunned down. “The ever-obliging police made no effort to arrest the killers or identify the instigators,” the report said.

Journalists also became caught up in armed separatist struggles, including two who were killed in India “because of their coverage of the Kashmir conflict.”

A TV cameraman and a reporter were killed in the Indonesian military’s offensive against separatists in Aceh province, while in Myanmar a journalist linked to the opposition National League for Democracy “was killed by the regime’s thugs.”

The report said at least 600 journalists were physically attacked or threatened in 2003.

“The level of violence rose again in Bangladesh to more than 200 cases of physical attacks or death threats against journalists by political activists, especially from the ruling party, or criminals.”

Censorship was widely imposed to silence critics and was reinforced in some 10 countries by anti-terrorist laws passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the report said.

“More than 190 news media were hit by censorship,” it said.

In China, journalists “who created trouble” were simply removed from their posts.

“This was how the central government banned the press from covering the SARS epidemic in the first months of 2003.”

“China continued to jam the Chinese-language service of the BBC World Service and Radio Free Asia,” while various Internet sites were blocked.

Foreign TV channels were banned in Afghanistan and Indonesia’s army used martial law to impose a news black-out on the war in Aceh province.

“One of the worst pieces of news in 2003 came from Thailand, where Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did his best to silence critical voices with the help of the army, which owns many electronic media,” the report said.

However, the situation there was better than in Laos and Myanmar “which could be mistaken for a parody of propaganda media.”

In communist North Korea, all the news media were “given over to the cult of Kim Jong-Il’s personality.”

Malaysia and Singapore allowed the media to freely cover international or economic issues but not “sensitive domestic political issues”.

The report noted that Japan maintained a press club system which excluded foreign and freelance journalists from access to government sources, while in the Pacific nation of Tonga the constitution was amended to ban the only independent weekly.

Australia’s conservative government also drew fire, with the report saying it “continued to prevent journalists from covering the situation of refugees held in camps on Australian territory or in neighbouring countries.”

Only Taiwan came in for slight praise, Reporters Without Borders saying it “continued its steady consolidation as one of Asia’s leading countries as regards press freedom.”

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