Pinning blame on leaders in Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Malaysia, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed those four countries along with Bangladesh in the bottom third among 180 nations evaluated in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
The index released on Wednesday had Indonesia, at 130, ranked highest among the five Asian nations, followed by India – the world’s most populous democracy – at 133; Junta-ruled Thailand, at 136; Bangladesh at 144; and Malaysia at 146.
The annual index “reflects the intensity of the attacks on journalistic freedom and independence by governments, ideologies and private-sector interests during the past year,” Paris-based RSF said in releasing the 2016 index.
Writing about the Asia-Pacific region, the report specifically cited India and Bangladesh for taking little action in response to violence against journalists and writers.
“Wherever they work, Indian journalists are exposed to growing violence. As well as frequent verbal and physical violence, attacks by armed groups are on the rise in several states and the local authorities have had little success in reining it in,” RSF said in a press release.
RSF said there was almost one attack on an Indian journalist each month and four journalists were murdered in 2015, including at least two in connection with their work.
The Committee to Protect Journalists identified those Indian reporters killed in four separate incidents last year as freelancers Jagendra Singh and Sandeep Kothari, Aaj Tak reporter Akshay Singh, and TV24 reporter Hemant Yadav.
India saw its ranking improve by three spots from last year, yet RSF criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparent indifference on the issue of press freedom.
“Journalists and bloggers are attacked and anathematized by various religious groups that are quick to take offense. At the same time, it is hard for journalists to cover regions such as Kashmir that are regarded as sensitive by the government,” the report said.
“Modi seems indifferent to these threats and problems, and there is no mechanism for protecting journalists. Instead, in a desire to increase control of media coverage, Modi envisages opening a journalism university run by former propaganda ministry officials,” RSF added.
Regarding Bangladesh, which moved up two spots to No. 144 on the index, RSF alluded to threats against secular writers or anyone who questioned the official religion.
“It is a bad idea to criticize the constitution or Islam, the state religion. Journalists and bloggers who refuse to submit to censorship or to censor themselves on these subjects risk life imprisonment or the death penalty,” RSF’s report said.
Last year alone, five secular writers were hacked to death by suspected militants in Bangladesh.
Indonesia shows improvement
Although Indonesia ranked 130th out of 180 nations and showed significant improvement by moving up eight spots on the index, RSF criticized President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for not doing enough to uphold press freedom in his country.
“Sometimes dubbed the Indonesian Obama, President Joko Widodo has disappointed. His presidency continues to be marked by serious media freedom violations, including lack of access to West Papua, an information black hole,” the report said, referring to a restive province on the eastern end of Indonesia.
“Journalists and fixers trying to work there are liable to be arrested. The problem is compounded by Indonesia’s visa law, which discriminates against foreign journalists. At the same time, many poorly paid journalists accept bribes in return for positive coverage,” RSF said.
Thai junta challenged
The report also took aim at the military leadership in Thailand, which dropped two spots on the index, to 136. RSF called the junta ubiquitous and all-powerful, claiming it exercised permanent control over journalists and citizen-journalists.
“Its leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, is given to frequent verbal attacks and even death threats against journalists. He is a new predator of information,” the report claimed.
In November, RSF published a separate report claiming that the junta had created a “reign of terror” over the Thai media since seizing power in May 2014.
The junta’s obsessiveness with peace and order – “or its use as a pretext, has stripped journalists and independent civil society representatives of the media freedom and freedom of information that they had won at great cost during the previous decade,” the November report said.
In Malaysia, RSF criticized the country’s leader for ordering police crackdowns on the media amid corruption scandals overshadowing his government.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak wages a personal war against independent media and does not hesitate to order police raids on newsrooms. These heavy-handed operations often result in arbitrary arrests,” the report said.
“The persecution of outspoken journalists extends to the Internet, where sites such as Sarawak and The Edge have been blocked for reporting alleged corruption involving government officials.”
Measuring the data
In compiling information for its index that gauges press freedom worldwide, RSF devised and distributed a questionnaire to journalists, lawyers and sociologists in the 180 countries.
“The criteria evaluated in the questionnaire are pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information,” RSF explained.
In addition, a team of specialists kept a detailed tally of abuses and violence against journalists and media outlets. Scores are calculated on the basis of the questionnaire responses combined with the data on abuses and violence against journalists.