The Brave Journalists, Asia Report To End Impunity – Forbes
The United Nations made November 2 of this year the first annual International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (#EndImpunity on Twitter). The UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Press Institute (IPI), PEN International (PEN) and many other international organizations published many reports on the day and since about what they mean by impunity and data on how much various countries have been implicated in journalists’ deaths followed by incomplete investigations.
The small number of perpetrators ever brought to justice in these cases sends out a terrible signal that governments are tacitly okay with these journalist killings and that malevolence toward journalists will be tolerated. As a journalist who covers emerging and frontier markets in Asia I can attest many countries’ freedom of the press is still an idea in the process of maturing.
This report takes a closer look at how a broad spectrum of Asia’s countries are doing in supporting – or efforts to corral – freedom of the press to write without intimidation, alive and outside of jail. The goal of this report is not to cover every single country but to represent the diversity of issues journalists face across Asia that can, in one manner or another, hinder their ability to do their job.
The word impunity was chosen for the campaign as, in the most extreme cases, journalists have been killed for doing their work and no one is ever punished for it (impunity = exempt from punishment). Globally, from the UN poster below, an average of 74 journalists are being killed annually. Outside of Europe and North America, 28 out of 568 cases between 2006 and 2013 have been resolved, or 5%. While the resolution rate in Europe and North America of 40% is not satisfactory itself, a rate of 5% means Asia’s journalist-killers have a 19 in 20 chance of no repercussions. This is unacceptably tragic.
Today, you may hear a lot about the Maguindanao Massacre, also called the Ampatuan Massacre. Five years ago today 32 today journalists and 58 people died in the Philippines. No one has been convicted yet. A few days ago one witness to this massacre was killed, another was injured. Three other witnesses of this event were previously killed since the as yet not completed trials began in 2010.
94% of the journalists killed are local journalists. These are not the stories that go global about foreign correspondents. You won’t see stories on global news television about Pakistan’s world-leading 14 journalists dead this year, the families they have left behind, the stories they were trying to cover and the country they dedicated their lives to trying to make better through their reporting.
These murdered local journalists were people trying to tell the stories of their own country and were muzzled and intimidated for their efforts. This indeed is the larger issue. It is not simply about the journalists who are dead, it is the message their deaths send to other journalists: don’t do what they did, don’t seek the truths they sought, don’t report what they reported.
Intimidation of journalist is not merely limited to the final act of killing them. Journalists are also jailed, kidnapped, threatened, go missing without resolution, are shot at (by bullets that don’t hit them sometimes), experience their spouses and children being threatened and harassed, have their homes invaded by police, get censored, face trumped up charges in court, are tortured to reveal their sources and information they know, have their TV stations, websites and newspapers shut down or blocked, and so on. These things do happen and these journalists have risked facing all this in an effort to uncover some truth, write about it and maybe earn a living that is middle-class at best.
For the pay, the tremendous risks that can be faced by journalists in some of the countries below is tremendously outsized. For reporters in many of these places, bravery, patritotism, a belief that the truth can make a difference, or some combination of these factors is the only explanation for why they risk so much for their jobs when they could probably have a better and safer quality of life as taxi drivers, shopkeepers or some other far less risky middle wage employment. Here is a look at some of the lowlights across the region. Despite some of the issues being non-violent, the common theme is a curtailment of press freedom as a knock-on effect of the issues discussed.
When a journalist is not a journalist, the life of independent journalists in China, Vietnam and Laos
In western media outlets the term blogger can sometimes be used pejoratively by journalists to denote a source is someone that frequently writes about a topic but, in fact, is not a “real journalist.” For China and Vietnam, Barbara Trifoni, Press Freedom Manager for the IPI says:
In China and Vietnam, the majority of those imprisoned are categorized as bloggers rather than journalists, but it has to be noted that both countries have state-controlled journalists’ associations and only those licensed by these associations are allowed to call themselves journalists. All others, whether they do journalism or activism, are defined as bloggers because they operate online, a space that still enjoys more freedom than print and broadcast media.
How many bloggers are in jail then? How do we differentiate who qualifies as what would meet our notion of a journalist and who is a blogger or if this differentiation matters?
Parties interviewed for this story noted that clear information on Laos is more difficult to assess due to a lack of independent sources, however the media in Laos is among “the most state-controlled media environments.”
Currently in China, Ms. Gao Yu, a 70 year-old reporter is standing trial for leaking state secrets. As Al-Jazeera notes, the secret she is accused of leaking is a state document elaborating on plans to increase censorship in China. Allegedly her son was threatened to gain a confession from her for this case. She has previously served 7 years in jail for other infractions.
Speaking with PEN International as they worked on their campaign for the 33rd annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer (November 15 each year), they note regarding China:
• There are over 40 writers and journalists currently detained in the P.R.C. Numbers have remained largely unchanged in spite of government commitments to human rights and press freedom in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
• The government has been apparently impervious to pressure, although research shows that international attention affords some protection from ill-treatment in prison.
• Minority issues are a key concern in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang where separatist struggles place writers at risk of arrest. They include writer Dolma Kyab, serving a 10-year sentence in Tibet for allegedly ‘endangering state security’ in an unpublished manuscript, and Uighur writer Nurehamet Yasin, who is approaching the end of a 10-year sentence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Republic for ‘inciting Uighur separatism’ in his short story ‘Wild Pigeon.’ His publisher Korash Huseyin was sentenced to 3 years for publishing the story.
• PEN is particularly concerned about the crackdown on signatories of Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reforms and human rights, notably prominent dissident writer and former President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested on 8 December 2008 and sentenced to eleven years in prison on 25 December 2009.
Cathy McAnn, a Researcher at PEN covering Asia and the Middle East says of Vietnam:
• PEN is alarmed about a deteriorating pattern of harassment and arrest of independent journalists, human rights activists, cyber dissidents, religious freedom advocates, and farmers protesting confiscation of their land.
• There are at least nineteen dissident writers currently detained in Vietnam. In addition PEN is seriously concerned about widespread harassment, house arrest and use of administrative detention orders against dissident writers.
A New York Times op-ed by Nguyen Cong Khe a few days ago makes the Vietnamese government’s stranglehold on the media clear as do many reports. Yet, global opinions of media censorship of countries such as China and Vietnam matter little within the context of international business that focuses on growing trade with their rapidly advancing economies. That said, China and Vietnam’s example should discourage free market advocate claims that the advance of capitalism will inevitably gain people democratic freedoms. Free markets are good, but they are not a magical solution for manufacturing all forms of freedom and democracy expected in developed countries.
Philippines vs. Pakistan, which one kills more journalists?
The CPJ has an interactive chart of journalist deaths around the world since 1992. The Philippines leads the way for journalist deaths in Asia (and is only 2nd to Iraq worldwide). While Philippines has persistent problems this number is ballooned by the events of November 23, 2009, the Maguinandao Massacre detailed above. It is the single deadliest event ever for journalists. Human Rights Watch has suggested this is a systemic problem in the southern Philippines’ province.
CPJ’s year by year chart on Pakistan is less lumpy and shows a consistent problem devloping since 2007, with at least 5 journalists killed each year since that year. While working on this article, Jewan Arain of Dharti TV was shot dead while riding his motorcycle. Three separate attacks in the second half of this year in Pakistan have killed three staffers working inside a news office and separately Nadeem Hyder of Dunya News and Yaqoob Shehzad of Express News have helped bring the tally of deaths to journalists to 14 this year.
As detailed in a recent article on Forbes, police invasion of home, censorship by courts, threats on children and being shot at are also possible (and this was all in an article only about one journalist in the country). IFJ acting director, Jane Worthington, said in IFJ press release after Mr. Arain’s murder:
Arain is the 14th media worker to be killed in Pakistan this year – all of these killings were targeted shootings and assassinations. There are no other words than saying the situation facing journalists in Pakistan is beyond horrific. It is a war on the media that is crying out for a strong, concerted response that must be led by a committed government that values the principles of democracy and understands the vital role of the media in that democratic system.
So Pakistan is rapidly becoming as bad, or worse, than the Philippines, which is quite bad. As noted on Twitter by the CPJ, “Did you know? More journalists have been killed in the Philippines than in Syria.” The IFJ separately noted “171 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986″ (an average of 6 per year).
Why would either the government of the Philippines or Pakistan want their country to be known as the most mortally dangerous country in which to be a journalist in Asia?
A short video on the impunity issue in the Philippines courtesy of the CPJ.
Maldives, 107 days missing in 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) of islands
A local teen blogger that became a prominent adult journalist, Ahmed “Moyameehaa” Rilwan has been missing for 107 days as of November 23. His very active Twitter feed suddenly goes silent August 7 (he is officially missing since August 8). As a young blogger he spoke out against extremism. Mr. Rilwan’s employer Minivan News has been running his old columns as his 100 day anniversary missing arrived and departed with all too much silence. Al Jazeera and RSF have been among those covering the story of this missing young man.
Uzbekistan, who will report news that challenges a government if it can mean a life-long sentence of jail and torture?
Muhammad Bekjanov has the unfortunate distinction of being the journalist that has been jailed the longest worldwide. In jail since 1999, it is 15 years now. His prison term was actually scheduled to end in early 2012. However, as reported by CPJ in 2012:
…days before Bekjanov was due to be released, a district court in the city of Kasan sentenced him to an additional five-year term after charging him with breaking unspecified prison rules.
In 1999, Mr. Bejankov was the editor of Erk, an opposition newspaper, where he worked alongside his brother Yusuf Ruzimuradov. They were both extradited from Ukraine by Uzbeki authorities in 1999 after a terrorist attack in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent sparked a broad crackdown on opposition activities. Both Mr. Bejankov and Mr. Ruzimuradov are brothers of Muhammad Salih, an opposition leader to the sitting government of Uzbekistan who lives in exile in Norway. He was also sentenced to prison in 1999 in abstentia.
In a 2012 report on Uzbekistan prisons focusing on 34 political prisoners In Uzbekistan including Messrs. Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov, Human Right Watch found that there was “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment in during their pre-trial custody or in prison” in 29 out of 34 cases.
Sri Lanka, is the civil war that ended in 2009 over yet, for everyone?
The CPJ’s data on deaths to journalists in Sri Lanka shows that since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 there has not been a confirmed journalist death. As disclosure, I have been branded an apologist for the sitting government by multiple commenters on several of my articles about the country. As it thus seems inappropriate to detail my opinions about the war and its conclusion (i.e. I think ending a war is a good thing), I will simply quote some of the agencies providing information for this report.
Cathy McCann PEN International:
There is particular concern for journalists, writers and media outlets in Sri Lanka, who continue to suffer intimidation and violence. Many have fled the country or gone into hiding due to threats to their lives and the failure of the Government and authorities to assure them of protection and to investigate attacks upon them. The families of threatened journalists are also at risk. PEN International remains deeply concerned for the well-being of columnist Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda, who has been missing since 24 January 2010. It is feared that pro-government forces may be responsible for his disappearance.
The CPJ shows 19 journalists killed with a confirmed motive in Sri Lanka up and through 2009, along with 6 journalist that lost their lives without a confirmed motive to-date, also all prior to the start of 2010.
Reports of other forms of intimidation in Sri Lanka continue. For example, the IFJ reported in June that a journalist conference was cancelled due to threats received on mobile phones of attendees: “[T]he police advised the organizer Transparency International Sri Lanka to leave the venue and hotel. The participants were moved to the Galadari Hotel, Colombo, for safety but the management of the five-star hotel asked them to leave the hotel at midnight after receiving threats.”
The IFJ said in response:
This pattern of threat and intimidation is designed to silence the media and ultimately block the public’s right to know. The lack of due investigation in this string of incidents is the reason Sri Lanka remains high on the world’s watch list for impunity. Those incidents have deteriorated the freedom of expression and weakened democratic governance, thus we urge the Sri Lankan government to immediately act to stop such activities and allow media-related training for the development of the independent media.
India, the most censored Facebook pages on the planet after 2013′s killer year
In current reports on global Facebook data, 5,959 Facebook accounts were referenced in 4,960 “content restriction” requests from authorities to Facebook in the first half of this year. The restrictions were predominantly requested on posts regarding religion and government criticisms. Facebook complied with approximately half the requests in accordance with local laws. The number of content restriction requests by India was more than double its nearest competitors: Turkey and Pakistan.
There are signs that India might be improving a bit from RSF’s look back on it last year in its World Press Freedom Index 2014 Asia-Pacific review:
A record number of eight journalists and one media worker were killed in India in 2013. Half of these deaths were premeditated reprisals. This was twice the 2012 death toll and more than the death toll in Pakistan [7 in 2013]… Criminal organizations, security forces, demonstrators and armed groups all pose a threat to India’s journalists. The violence and the resulting self-censorship is encouraged by the lack of effective investigations by local authorities, who are often quick to abandon them, and inaction on the part of the federal authorities.
This year there is only one journalist death in India year-to-date.
Thailand, why this article will probably be banned and the law that cripples dialogue about the country’s future
Lèse-majesté. Quite simply, don’t say anything about the royalty that is not approved by the royalty. Yes, people do write mentions and nice things about Thailand’s royalty without permission and this is not an issue.
King Bhumibol by and large has been a very good king and is among the most loved royals in the world, if not the most loved royalty by his people worldwide, by many accounts. Unfortunately, he is also 87 next month. It is against the law to talk too much about his declining health. The options for successorship are not trusted to be able to adequately fill his shoes. The Economist wrote about this problem back in 2010.
For outsiders that think King Bhumibol is merely a figurehead, it is hard to see what the big deal is. When I wrote Do Protests and Coups in Thailand Matter? late in 2013 I, a foreign journalist living outside the county, self-censored myself to avoid discussing in any great detail the genuine politically important role the king has played in resolving political problems and coups (which happen on average once every 5 years for the past century in Thailand). At the time, I avoided detailing this topic because: (1) my family had still not decided where we would relocate in Asia the following year, with Thailand a possible destination; (2) I frankly would like to visit the country in the future; and (3) I would like to at least be able to use the Bangkok airport as a transfer hub in the future. However, if my few words here are found to violate lèse-majesté, I could find myself in jail if I try to visit.
The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley is an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol by a journalist who lived and worked in Thailand for 13 years. His book and he are banned from Thailand. On the link to the Amazon title, one will find many negative comments from people on the book, and that is their right. While the book clearly has an angle, if you want a different perspective on Thailand than one typically finds, it is a good read.
In 2011, a man with U.S. citizenship who translated Mr. Handley’s book into Thai (from his home in Colorado USA) was arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail for his efforts once he set foot on Thai soil. In an interview, Joe Gordon (also known as Lerpong Vichaikhammart) said in an interview after his release and return to the United States in 2013:
After the horrific experiences of Thai prison life, I am still troubled, and the fact that I never received justice has been playing on my mind. The problem is with Article 112 (lèse-majesté law); it allows virtually anyone to file a complaint against others willy-nilly. I was not aware that someone had filed a complaint against me. More importantly, the Thai judges, the ones that would consider the charges against me, were politicised. They never considered bail in my case. Still today, these experiences are traumatising and reflect the un-civilised actions surrounding the lèse-majesté issue.
Thus, often even foreign correspondents do not adequately discuss the importance of the very well loved king’s influence over the people of Thailand and the military of Thailand. He has been on the throne for nearly seven decades and is vital to the country’s stability. There is a lack of discussion of when he has influenced coups either at their beginning or end, and when he has not. There is a lack of discussion at how important his role, often behind the scenes, has been to Thailand.
Further, whoever his successor is, no matter how weak or strong, will be privy to the same treatment. If his successor blunders, he or she can still not be criticized under lèse-majesté. I believe King Bhumibol has done an amazing job, often requiring a very particular finesse, to keep his country on a good path forward. But, there is a need to be able to discuss his age, his successorship and if Thailand can manage its democracy or its high rate of coups without him.
RSF has pointed out some recent examples of lèse-majesté enforcement in its 2014 Asia Pacific report:
The Thai government uses lèse-majesté charges as an effective weapon for intimidating or silencing those who are disrespectful. The suspended jail sentence imposed on Chiranuch Premchaiporn (also known as Jiew), the editor of the online newspaper Prachatai, for ‘comments critical of the monarchy’ and the 11-year-jail sentence given to Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, editor of the Voice of Thaksin bimonthly, were noteworthy examples. These sentences had a deterrent effect on the entire Thai media.
An article by PEN cites one local journalist that confided, “It’s hard to breathe here in this nauseating atmosphere with no freedom of expression. As a writer it’s choking.” The article from August 2014 also points out the current military coup has its own form of limiting expression:
… when General Prayuth, the top military leader, summoned 250 leading scholars and writers to meet with him. Those who didn’t respond to his summons face two years in jail. Though we don’t know what was said during this meeting, we do know that he has publicly accused journalists of ‘asking questions too aggressively.’
Myanmar (Burma), ostensibly reforming, actually not that much
Since Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010 and a process of political reforms was undertaken by the government, there has been plenty of optimism about Myanmar’s future. The excitement among businesses and investors has been palpable as exemplified by Archibald Colquhoun’s book titled Burma and the Burmans: or, ‘The Best Unopened Market in the World.’
As has too often been the case since Mr. Colquhoun published his book 129 years ago in 1885, things are not quite going as well as the optimistic would think they should based on Myanmar’s wealth of resource capital, human capital and geographic capital.
One journalist – Aung Kyaw Naing (also known as Par Gyi) – was recently publicly announced by the military to have been killed while in custody, ostensibly because he attempted to run away from his captors. He had contributed work previously to a number of local publications including Eleven Myanmar, Yangon Times, and The Voice. According to CPJ, this is the first journalist killing in Myanmar since 2007.
More problematic is the government’s attitude toward the media. In 2013, the government did get rid of its censorship board, the former Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. However, as the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) published this month:
SEAPA views with utmost concern the latest move of the Ministry of Information (MOI) in Myanmar to pursue legal action against the Myanmar Thandawsint (Myanmar Herald) using the new Media Law for publishing scathing commentary about the words of President Thein Sein.
The MOI is suing the paper for publishing on 9 October an interview with an opposition leader who described Thein Sein’s words as ‘nonsensical, absurd and insane.’
… If the case is upheld by the court, the paper stands to pay a relatively small fine for the offence. However, the move is a fundamentally insidious attempt to silence the media from covering legitimate criticism of public officials….
The case exposes one of the key flaws of the Media Law, which was passed by Parliament in April 2014.
Hiding behind the language of protection of the reputation and human rights of a person, Section 9g in effect imposes anti-defamation restrictions on journalists in the country. Similarly, a prohibition on writing that inflames conflicts regarding nationality, race and religion is also present (section 9h).
But while a reasonable interpretation of these sections is possible, the MOI move amply demonstrates that, given enough power and influence, the law could be used as a weapon to silence media.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Myanmar said in October of this year: “Despite advances in media reforms, laws are still being used to criminalize and impede the activities of civil society and the media.”
Four local journalists and their publisher of the now defunct Unity Journal sit in jail for reporting on a government chemical weapons plant. They were convicted over the summer. The law they broke was a 1923 anti-spying law that predate Burma’s independence.
The IPI is holding its World Congress meeting in Myanmar this coming March which promises a good opportunity to discuss press freedom in Myanmar further.
Japan, first world problems
The CPJ explains the muting of coverage about the reality of the Fukushima tragedy a little:
Arrests, home searches, interrogation by the domestic intelligence agency and threats of judicial proceedings – who would have thought that covering the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster would have involved so many risks for Japan’s freelance journalists? The discrimination against freelance and foreign reporters resulting from Japan’s unique system of Kisha clubs, whose members are the only journalists to be granted government accreditation, has increased since Fukushima.
In 2010, Japan was tied for 11th place in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. Mainly due to various efforts to constrain reporting on the nuclear tragedy in Fukushima, and other legislative issues that followed from it, today Japan ranks 59th on RSF’s 2014 World Press Freedom Index.
Kyrgyzstan, another human rights advocate silenced in a a jail cell by a life sentence
Azimjon Askarov is imprisoned for life as detailed in a biographical report on him by the CPJ. He is ostensibly in jail because he is accused of inciting the civic unrest he was out covering with his camera that led to the death of a policeman. He is not accused of actually killing the policeman himself, only being the rabble rouser that led to it. It is hard to take pictures of a riot and lead it at the same time, yet after two days when they “beat me like a soccer ball,” this charge and two related charges were what was brought against him that led to his life imprisonment.
Mr. Askarov’s career was dedicated to covering Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflicts in his southern Kyrgyzstan, reporting on the human rights issues important to the human right organization he founded (Vozdukh), investigated local politicians and famously got a woman released from police detention that “was repeatedly raped by police and male detainees during her seven-month-long pretrial detention.”
The CPJ says he “ended careers and embarrassed local officials time and again” and now he sits in jail for the remainder of his life by the work of those same officials.
Indonesia, will the new government continue the positive trajectory?
With only one journalist killed since 2010 (when there were three killed), the climate is better than it once was in Indonesia. Still, an open letter to the government from the IFJ and the Southeast Asia Journalists Union (SEAJU) points to a climate in which intimidation still happens:
In 2013, there were 40 reported cases of journalist attacks and 56 cases and 49 cases in 2012 and 2011 respectively. Since 1996, there remain eight murders of journalists that are unresolved.
Freedom House posted a quite optimistic commentary in the Jakarta Post recently in which it said:
While Indonesia continues to face internal challenges that obstruct the ability of all of its citizens to exercise their full rights, a new study from NGO Freedom House has found the country to be a potential example for its ASEAN neighbors and others across the globe that are struggling to make a transition from authoritarian rule…
Nevertheless, Indonesia has failed to achieve its potential due to its emphasis on noninterference and respect for sovereignty even in the face of repression and rampant atrocities.
By limiting its democratic support to a series of national processes and regional mechanisms rather than singling out states for criticism, Indonesia has so far failed to have a clear impact on the actions of repressive governments.
Make a plea to end this
Indonesia’s optimistic note from Freedom House is what we want to see all countries going toward. There are reports from all the agencies cited in this article available for every country, whether cited herein or not, with more details. The fact is there is no country in the world that does not have some element of press freedom issues and media intimidation. There are however degrees of intimidation and then there is simply intolerable impunity.
Freedom of the press is a diverse issue as are the many and growing number of ways governments find to hem in press freedom with all our modern technology. The defining challenge of a free press is for the citizenry to support the right of people to publish things they individually don’t like and for governments to trust its people to discern reasonable truths through the cacophony of reporting.
Journalists dedicate their lives and work to reporting what they believe will rise above the cacophony of other voices to be heard. They work strange hours, drop family obligations for stories and stand in front of their words with their name at the top of each article. Few journalists become well-known. Most journalists could find a comparably paying job with regular hours without so much as the personal risk of a negative comment on their work (as one often gets on Internet articles), let alone risking death, jail, torture, going missing, being spied upon, having family members threatened or the other forms of intimidations journalists experience today.
The IFJ is conducting a Thunderclap Campaign today as the November 2nd to November 23rd campaign to End Impunity concludes. The simple idea is today on the anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre, for people from around the world to all let their governments know by Twitter, Facebook, regularly mailed letters, or any way they can to demand their governments support the United Nations resolution against impunity. It is the job of citizens of countries to ask their governments to do a job that represents them and their community well at home and abroad.
Governments need to show better respect for media freedom. Governments need to find and prosecute journalist killers that today walk free to send a message that intimidation of its journalists will not be tolerated and that the governments will not be complicit in such intimidation. Governments need to end de facto intimidation of media in all its forms. The world needs governments to support press freedom as bravely as the journalists who bravely report in the face of all the risks they can experience for simply doing their job.
The Brave Journalists, Asia Report To End Impunity – Forbes}