AHEAD of World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, two prominent watchdogs have warned of worsening press freedom across the Asia Pacific, particularly with the rise of populist politics and growing geopolitical influence of China.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its World Press Freedom Index for 2018 last week, which specifically highlighted the threat to regional democracies posed by “China’s media control model”. The one-party state is ranked 176 out of 180 countries on the Index, with RSF stating that the country’s media landscape was getting “closer to a contemporary version of totalitarianism”.
China – which currently has more than 50 journalists locked in its prisons – is “exporting its oppressive methods” of censorship and surveillance within its sphere of influence, said RSF, in order to create a “new world media order”.
— RSF (@RSF_inter) April 25, 2018
Cambodia – where Chinese political influence has grown in recent years – dropped 10 places to 142, reflecting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown against local news media including forcing the closure of more than 30 independent media organisations.
Amid Western criticism of his government’s abolition of the political opposition, media and human rights groups has seen Hun Sen grow ever closer to Beijing, however in January he praised US President Donald Trump’s so-called Fake News Awards.
Burma (Myanmar) fell six places on RSF’s Index to 137, as two Reuters journalists continue to face prosecution for reporting on potential war crimes by the Tatmadaw Army amid the Rohingya crisis.
“The government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has lost all credibility as regards its obligation to defend the role of the media,” said the group, which also cited the growth of hate speech in the country which has fueled violence against its Muslim minorities.
RSF said that the Chinese model was also being “felt by the media” in Thailand (140), Malaysia (145) and Singapore (150). Malaysia has recently implemented the world’s first “anti-fake news law” which carries a penalty of up to six years’ imprisonment, while neighbouring Singapore is considering similar legislation.
The Philippines also dropped 6 places to 133, with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte frequently attacking the press and seeking to shutter independent publisher Rappler. During a meeting with Trump last year he called journalists spies and has warned that media workers are not “exempted from assassination”.
North Korea, meanwhile, remained the “world’s worst violator of the freedom to inform” at 180, with its state KCNA news agency remaining the only source of news for its population.
“A press corps that calls out government failures is fundamental to the functioning of all democracies,” read another report from US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House entitled Attacks on the Record: The State of Global Press Freedom, 2017-2018, also released last week.
“Populist leaders are intentionally denouncing critical media and their coverage as biased, and the factual information they report as ‘fake,’ weakening their credibility and leaving citizens unsure whom to believe.”
In the Asia Pacific, Freedom House cited China’s “new heights” of internet censorship with the Cybersecurity Law of June 2017; the “crippling blow” to press freedom in Cambodia with the closure of the Cambodia Daily newspaper; and the Philippine government’s attempts to shut down Rappler on the grounds it breached foreign ownership laws.
“Populist leaders today constitute a new and growing challenge to free expression in open societies, and interference from Russia and China has compounded the threat,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
“The assault on press freedom is an attack against a core institution of democracy. Elected leaders who try to discredit factual, critical reporting are undermining democratic accountability and reasoned political debate,” he said.
This was reflected in India’s ranking – falling a further two places on the RSF Index to 138. Under “strongman” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has ruled since 2014, journalists have become increasingly targeted online and in some cases with deadly physical violence by right-wing Hindu groups.
Other democracies in the Asia Pacific saw improvements, however. Hong Kong and Taiwan both rose three places, while South Korea shot up by 20 places on the Index to 43, more than any other country regionally.
According to RSF, incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s tenure has been a “breath of fresh air” for the press in South Korea despite enduring issues with defamation and national security laws. Neighbouring Japan rose 5 places to 67.
New Zealand and Australia remained at the top of the list in the spots of 8 and 19, respectively.