By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Press freedom took a knock in Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Thailand while Burma chalked up the best gains for media reforms in Asia over the past year, says an annual global survey.
Only five percent of Asia’s population had access to a “free” media in 2012, while 47 percent lived in “partly free” and 48 percent in “not free” media environments, according to the “Freedom of the Press 2013″ survey released Wednesday by Washington-based Freedom House.
It cited a “worrying deterioration” in press freedom in Cambodia as well as in Thailand, which has been downgraded to “not free” from the “partly free” category.
Cambodia’s score has worsened “due to an increase in the number of journalists behind bars” and “a significant rise in threats and physical violence against the press, including the first murder of a reporter since 2008,” the report said.
It referred to the jailing last year of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who was convicted of sedition and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the outlet’s coverage of land disputes.
Mam Sonando was convicted in October on charges of instigating insurrection, drawing protests from rights groups who accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of muzzling criticism against his rule.
A Cambodian appeals court in March however quashed that ruling, dropped most of the charges, reduced the sentence to time served and ordered his release.
Freedom House said that despite the release, there was a “continuing negative trend” in media freedom in Cambodia ahead of crucial elections in July.
“Media owners continue to face pressure and harassment, which is quite worrisome,” Karin Karlekar, Freedom House Project Director for Freedom of the Press, told a press conference.
Thailand has been put back into the “not free” category “due to a trend of aggressive enforcement of lese-majesté laws,” Freedom House said.
Critics say the lese-majeste laws are used as a political tool to discredit and silence opponents. Those found guilty of insulting the Thai royal family can serve up to 15 years in jail for each offense.
In a case that was widely denounced by rights groups, an ex-magazine editor was jailed for 10 years in January after he was found guilty of publishing articles defaming King Bhumibol in 2010.
China’s special administrative region Hong Kong’s score also declined in a reflection of “growing government restrictions on journalists’ access to information and several violent and technical attacks against reporters, websites, and media entities,” Freedom House said.
In addition, Beijing’s efforts to influence media production in the territory intensified and touched on internal Hong Kong politics, marking a departure from past trends in which the targets of Chinese pressure were primarily voices and topics regarded as politically sensitive on the mainland, the report said.
In January, journalists in Hong Kong, a former British colony which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, ran a petition in newspapers urging the city’s Beijing-backed leader to withdraw a proposed law which they said would infringe press freedom.
Local and foreign journalists are opposed to a government plan to restrict access to information about company directors after such details were used in a series of investigative reports to expose the wealth of Chinese officials.
Hong Kong maintains a semi-autonomous status with guarantees of civil liberties—including press freedom—not seen in mainland China.
Taiwan’s media freedom score also declined slightly as regulatory delays in approving a license for a new television station compelled the owner to declare that the project was no longer financially sustainable.
But Burma, where reform-minded President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has been implementing political and other reforms after five decades of harsh military rule, registered the survey’s largest numerical improvement of the year due to “people’s increased ability to access information” and the release of imprisoned bloggers and video journalists, among other factors.
Freedom House also cited other “positive” factors such as an end to official prepublication censorship and dissolution of the censorship body, the establishment of several independent journalists’ and publishers’ associations, fewer cases of harassment and attacks against journalists, improved access for the foreign media, greater access to foreign radio broadcasts and the Internet, and some progress toward a new media law.
However, it cautioned against restrictions maintained on ethnic minority journalists and coverage of ethnic violence between minority Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state.
It also said that efforts to repeal “restrictive” legislation and reconcile the new media law with international press freedom standards have encountered official resistance.
In China, home to the world’s most sophisticated censorship apparatus, Freedom House said the installation of a new Chinese Communist Party leadership did not produce any immediate relaxation of constraints on either traditional media or the Internet.
In fact, it said, the Chinese regime, which boasts the world’s most intricate and elaborate system of media repression, stepped up its drive to limit both old and new sources of information through arrests and censorship.
Still, China registered a modest improvement in scores in the Freedom House survey as microblogs and other online tools “enhanced Chinese citizens’ ability to share and access uncensored information, particularly regarding breaking news stories.”
There were fewer cases of violence against professional journalists and high-profile social media activists reported in China in 2012 than during the previous year, and several public outcries and online campaigns have been credited with driving the news agenda or forcing government concessions.
North Korea, one of the world’s worst-rated countries, also saw a “slight improvement” in scores as a result of increased attempts to circumvent stringent censorship and the use of technologies such as smuggled DVDs to spread news and information, Freedom House said.
But Karlekar said there were no signs of media reforms under North Korea’s new young leader Kim Jong Un although there has been “increased access by citizens to information” via entry of flash drives, videotapes, and other material from abroad due to economic opening.
There were little improvements in Asia’s other restrictive media environments, such as Laos and Vietnam, Freedom House said.
Asia’s regional average score however has improved slightly, “as negative movement in the legal category was outweighed by positive change in both the political and economic categories,” Freedom House said.