A networking group is working towards media freedom in Asia by training lawyers to defend journalists and bloggers.  Another group is posting copies of media court cases online. 

The Southeast Asia Media Defense Group identifies legal challenges and problems experienced by local reporters and journalists.

The group hopes to expand into training lawyers in China, but, for now, is focused on Southeast Asia.  China says its law guarantees citizens freedom of speech and expression.  But journalists who speak out against the government and others in power are sometimes charged with other offenses.

Media law isn't even taught

Doreen Weisenhaus is a former prosecutor and media law professor at the University of Hong Kong.  She says the media defense group's training is the first effort in the region, which includes Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

"In many of these countries media law is not even taught at the law schools.  So it's at the very basic levels of 'What is Media Law?'  'How do you defend such a case?'" she explained.

Weisenhaus says journalists and bloggers in Asia are sometimes charged for inciting rebellion against the government and for damaging someone's reputation. Inexperienced lawyers may not know how to defend.

She says journalists in Asia do not take media freedom for granted.  But the media's criticism of governments has increased, as more Asian countries become open and democratic.

"Now there's a media backlash," she noted.  "So there's been a stepping up of control or prosecutions against journalists and particularly bloggers, which is more notorious to control."

Speaking out brings repercussions

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, and editor of the "Journal of Asian Studies".  He also founded the "China Beat" blog.

He says there are possible repercussions for speaking out, in many kinds of settings.

"The Chinese government is mostly concerned, not about simply criticism of something it's doing, but people who are describing specific actions for people to take to try to alter the system," he said.

When journalists are arrested for things they have written or said, members of the Southeast Asia Media Defense Group want lawyers to be prepared.

The Asian Legal Information Institute is a non-profit and free access Web site for legal information in Asia.  It maintains more than 200 data bases from 28 Asian countries for lawyers' reference.

Blogs have changed communication method

Rebecca MacKinnon is a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in the Internet and China.  She and Wasserstrom spoke recently about China and blogging, as part of the The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival in Hong Kong.

MacKinnon says the Internet and blogs have changed the way that people communicate with each other and get news.  She says, in China, both editors and the government censor news reports, so controversial stories may not be reported.

"Sometimes people do cross the line and there are a number of reporters who have gone to jail for things they've written," she said.

China criticized for arrest of journalists

MacKinnon says bloggers who have been arrested make up a very small percentage of China's estimated 30 million to 50 million bloggers.

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists are two non-profit organizations which advocate media freedom. Both groups' Web sites maintain lists of journalists who have been arrested, worldwide.

The Committee to Protect Journalists' survey found 125 journalists behind bars on December 1, including 56 online journalists.  For the first time, the number of online journalists jailed, worldwide, surpassed print journalists.

The group's Web site calls China the "world's worst jailer of journalists."

China recently released two of four men - known as the Four Gentlemen from Beijing - who were imprisoned for being Internet activists in 2001.  One of the two was a journalist.  The other was an Internet engineer.  A second journalist is serving out his prison term.

They were arrested for belonging to the New Youth Study Group.

The group's meetings are reported to have drawn many university students and members.  They communicated by e-mail and posted essays, with titles such as "China's Democracy Is Fake".

All four were convicted of subversion and intention to overthrow the Communist Party in May, 2003. 

China defends human rights record

Jiang Yu is China foreign ministry spokesperson.  She says China is a strong advocate for human rights.

During a recent news conference, Jiang said China has made progress in its democratic and legal systems, but the country is still in the primary stages of socialism and there is still much room for improvement.