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Burma Shines But Asia Press Freedom Dips

  • VOA News

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, editor of "Voice of the Oppressed," seen here on Jan. 23, 2013, was jailed for 10 years for insulting Thailand's royal family.

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, editor of "Voice of the Oppressed," seen here on Jan. 23, 2013, was jailed for 10 years for insulting Thailand's royal family.

Burma was one of the few bright spots in Asia last year when it comes to freedom of the press, according to the international rights group Reporters Without Borders.

The Southeast Asian country, traditionally one of the region's most repressive, moved up 18 places in the group's annual Press Freedom Index, thanks to censorship reforms and the release of jailed journalists.

However, the report released Wednesday suggests that overall press freedom declined across the Asia-Pacific region for the second straight year in 2012.

2013 World Press Freedom Index

Most Free
  1. Finland
  2. Netherlands
  3. Norway
  4. Luxembourg
  5. Andorra

Least Free
  1. Eritrea
  2. North Korea
  3. Turkmenistan
  4. Syria
  5. Somalia
Specifically, it reported no progress in North Korea, China, Vietnam or Laos, which are all ruled by authoritarian governments it called "predators of press freedom."

North Korea, which exercises near complete control of the media, ranked second to last in the global index. The report said there are no signs that new leader Kim Jong Un, who took over following his father's death a year ago, will implement reforms.

Benjamin Ismail, head of the group's Asia-Pacific Desk, is similarly pessimistic about press freedom in China, saying the country's new Communist Party leaders have offered little reprieve for journalists and bloggers.

"There were many expectations after the arrival of [Party Secretary] Xi Jinping in China," says Ismail. "But so far nothing has changed and there is a continuation of the policy of repression toward information makers who cover sensitive topics, who dare criticize the government."

The report says many Tibetan monks have been convicted or abducted for sending information overseas about the human rights condition in Chinese-ruled Tibet. It also noted Beijing's ramped up censorship policies against those who post "sensitive" Internet content.

China's Communist neighbor, Vietnam, also ranked poorly. In less than a year, Ismail says, Vietnam has sentenced 12 bloggers and cyber dissidents to jail terms of up to 13 years.

"It now appears that Vietnam is the second biggest prison in the world for netizens [Internet users], just after China. Proportionally, it might even be the biggest," says Ismail.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, according to Ismail, was the performance of Japan, a country that usually does well in the annual rankings, but which had the sharpest drop of all Asian countries this year.

"Mainly the violations that were listed are related to the censorship around the topic of Fukushima and the management of that crisis," says Ismail. "We are aware of several cases of harassment of journalists by the police because they have been trying to publish information on the red zone."

Reporters Without Borders also ranked Japan poorly because of its failure to reform the system of "kisha clubs." The group says those news gathering associations restrict information to non-members, making reporting conditions difficult for freelance journalists and foreign media.

Standing in contrast was Burma, which is recovering from decades of oppressive military rule. Reporters Without Borders says there no longer are any journalists or cyber dissidents imprisoned in Burma. It also praised the ending of pre-publication censorship for Burmese newspapers.

Even so, Ismail says the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein still must work to change repressive laws enacted by the former military rulers.

"The Burmese government [must] really take on the issue of the legislative framework, because even though the atmosphere has changed....the laws under which the journalists are working, repressive laws, are still there," he says.