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Several Asian Countries Receive Poor Marks on Press Freedom - 2003-10-20

A new report by the group Reporters Without Borders says many Asian countries do not respect media freedoms. The list does not necessarily parallel economic success, with several rich countries achieving low marks.

Reporters Without Borders puts North Korea at the bottom of its list ranking 166 counties according to media freedoms.

The report was compiled from questionnaires given to journalists, academics, researchers and human rights activists in all countries surveyed. It is the group's second annual report.

North Korea joins six other Asian nations at the bottom of the list, namely Burma, Laos, Vietnam, China, Turkmenistan, and Bhutan. The report says that in these countries, independent news media groups are either non-existent or continually repressed.

Nick Cheesman, a spokesman with the Asian Human Rights Commission, says he is not surprised by the results. He says the treatment of journalists in Burma shows to what extent news content can be censored.

"What we can see in Burma is that the conditions have gotten worse for the journalists who are attempting to operate there," he said. "Just to give some examples of incidents … this year, the government insisted that all publications … not use the word "Thailand" because there was a bilateral dispute between the two countries."

The report also notes that journalists are intimidated, physically abused and imprisoned in places like Bangladesh and the Philippines, which have democratically elected leaders and many independent news-media organizations. Often the abuse is carried out by powerful figures in and outside government.

Reporters Without Borders also suggests rich nations can repress their media organizations. The group cites Singapore, one of Asia's wealthiest cities, which ranks 144 on the list.

China is saying it has loosened controls on its media, but Mr. Cheesman says the country's laws still violate basic media freedoms.

"Structurally there is not any real change in China, we can not say there has been much in terms of liberalization of the existing laws or the structure that manages the media," he said. "However … the way the media is operating now is changing considerably … There is an increasing role for the market forces in the way the media operates … as a result the links to the [communist ruling] party are weakening."

But there are some bright spots in Asia. South Korea took the 49th place, while Hong Kong stood at 56, not far behind the United States, which ranked in the low thirties. Northern European nations dominate the top 10 ranks as those with the freest media.