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Muzzled media

Esther Felden / rcJanuary 31, 2013

While North Korea languishes just one place from bottom on a new press freedom index, it's not the only Asian country where freedom of speech is stifled. Across the continent, journalists face censorship, and even death.

Free press protesters in Karachi (Photo: dpa / Nadeem Khawer)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When it comes to news released by North Korean news agency KCNA, or state television, only reports that have been strictly censored are released for public consumption.

Every item of content is controlled before it goes to air or finds its way onto the printed page.

"You won't find the faintest criticism of the regime or how things are," said Ulrike Gruska, spokeswoman for Reporters without Borders (RWB). Any correspondent who makes the slightest effort to report independently risks being subjected to "the most totalitarian means," Gruska explained.

It's no surprise that the largely isolated nation constantly finds itself at the bottom of a press freedom ranking list produced by RWB each year.

A total of 179 countries are included in the results this year, with North Korea coming in at 178th place, as it was last year. In last place was Eritrea.

One-party control

However, North Korea is not the only Asian country in which the media is used as an instrument for propaganda, where no free press exists and where journalists are threatened, injured, and in some cases, killed. Three other one-party states - Laos (169th in the list), Vietnam (172) and China (173) - come in only a few places higher.

No type of independent reporting is allowed in those countries either. As well as the established media, social networks and blogs are also meticulously combed for reports that are critical of the government. Offenders face severe punishment.
At present, more than 30 bloggers are in jail in Vietnam, while in China, some 100 journalists and bloggers find themselves behind bars.

A plainclothes officer tries to prevent a photographer from taking a photo (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
China remains one of the worst offenders, with the situation deterioratingImage: AP

RWB noted there had been a gradual deterioration of press freedom in China since literary critic and rights activist Liu Xiabao was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and even back to the Olympic games two years before that.

The censorship system is opaque and arbitrary, said Gruska. "Journalists are deliberately kept in the dark about what they can and cannot do. Of course, topics like Tibet or any criticism of the party are completely taboo."

When it comes to other issues, the situation varies. "You might be allowed to report on a particular subject one day, but on another day you are not."

For foreign correspondents in the country, things have also appeared to be getting worse over the past year. For the first time in 14 years, three visas and journalistic accreditations for correspondents from Al Jazeera and the New York Times have not been extended.

A North Korean Television KRT news reader announces the launch of a working satellite (Photo: REUTERS/KRT via Reuters TV)
Viewers would be hard-pressed to find any criticism of Pyongyang on TV in North KoreaImage: REUTERS/KRT

Deadly danger at work

The control of journalists is also part of everyday like in South Asia - and every year reporters pay for their efforts with their lives. Pakistan (ranked 159th) is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with 10 journalists killed there in 2012. In Bangladesh (144) and India (140) the situation has also worsened in recent months.

Speaking to DW, Former president of the Editors Guild of India described the country's press council - established to maintain freedom of speech - as "a toothless tiger." The Press Council of India may well have established a code of conduct, Mehta explains, but unlike other countries with similar institutions, such as former colonial power Great Britain, it is rarely adhered to.

What's more, says Mehta, the Indian government's influence is limited and the legal system is sluggish. "That also has a negative effect on the media and journalism in India."

Afghanistan, meanwhile, has jumped 28 places up the press freedom rankigs to 128th spot. This success, however, was not to be explained by any noticeable improvement in the working conditions of journalists. Instead, it is more to do with the fact that in 2012, despite all of the shortcomings and lack of security that persist in the country, no journalist was killed in the pursuit of their professional activities.

Another factor was also apparent, RWB spokeswoman Gruska explained. "Amid the limitations, the media landscape has become distinctly more diverse."

Journalists participate in a protest along the streets of Yangon (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)
While there have been improvements in Myanmar, RWB still has concerns about its mediaImage: Reuters

Going up … Myanmar

The organization attributed a real improvement to Myanmar. After decades of rule by a military junta, the recent political changes have had a real effect on the working conditions of journalists and press freedom. In the past year, several jailed journalists and bloggers have been released. As a result, Myanmar has climbed 18 places up the list to 151st place.

There was high praise for the government in summer 2012, when it was announced that censorship would be lifted. "At the time there were a lot of international plaudits," noted Gruska. "Now we have to see what, in practice, comes after this announcement."

This positive step did not apply to all forms of media in the country; it only applied to newspapers but not to radio and television.

And going down …

The influence of other outside factors on press freedom can be seen in the instance of Japan. While the country does appear in the top third of the rankings, at 53rd, it has fallen 31 places compared with the previous year. The principal reason given for this was what RWB deemed to be a restrictive flow of information in the aftermath of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant.