Asian Church leaders voice alarm over press freedom's decline

More incidents of attacks, intimidation and harrassment have raised the fear-level among journalists across region
Asian Church leaders voice alarm over press freedom's decline

Activists and journalists hold a demonstration in Manila on May 3 to call for an end to what they described as attacks on press freedom in the Philippines. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

Church leaders across Asia have expressed alarm over threats to press freedom amid reports of increasing attacks and intimidation of journalists, resulting in growing levels of self-censorship.

Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it takes a "lot of courage" to work as a journalist these days amid the threat of censorship, intimidation and even violence.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index, the group noted that governments across the region have been using laws to cultivate an atmosphere of fear among journalists.

 

Philippines: 'Precarious' situation

In the Philippines, where several journalists have been killed in recent years, the RSF said persecution of media practitioners was accompanied by online harassment campaigns.

Church leaders, critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, described the press freedom and freedom of information situation as "precarious."

"The government is not tolerant of those who criticize it," Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said.

He said "trolls" have been employed to frighten and threaten people “who express ideas contrary to what the government presents." 

A "troll" in internet slang is a person who quarrels or upsets people online to distract and sow discord.

Bishop Ruperto Santos, head of the Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People, said press freedom in the Philippines is "under threat and being undermined."

"There is a tendency and trend to suppress," said the prelate as he called for vigilance "to protect and promote [press freedom], especially against proliferation, even from higher ups, or fake news."

Government spokesmen, however, maintain the country remains "the freest if not one of the freest" in the region.

"Press freedom remains vibrant in the Philippines, now it’s protected," said Joel Egco, head of Duterte's Presidential Task Force on Media Security.

 

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India: Media need to stand for truth

In India, Bishop Salvadore Lobo of the Office for Social Communication of the country's Catholic bishops, said journalists face a lot of challenges.

He said, however, that these challenges should not restrain media practitioners from reporting the truth.

"[A] true media person is called to proclaim the truth, and should not deviate from that," said the prelate from Baruipur Diocese.

Bishop Henry D’Souza of Bellary, who also works with the Office of Social Communication, expressed regret over what he described were "subtle efforts" to erode press freedom in India.

Across the country, violence against journalists has taken place with relative impunity. 

In 2018, at least six journalists were reported killed while doing their jobs. They included Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-chief of the Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir, who was shot dead in Srinagar in June last year.

More than 70 have been killed in India in the past 24 years.

Attacks against journalists by supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have also increased in the run-up to the elections this year.

Reports from international media watchdogs also noted that coordinated hate campaigns against journalists on social media have become "alarming." 

Relatives of slain editor-in-chief of the Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari mourn over the coffin during his funeral procession at Kreeri, some 40 kms north of Srinagar on June 15, 2018. (Photo by Tauseef Mustafa/AFP)

 

Bangladesh: Self-censorship

Father Augustine Bulbul Rebeiro, secretary of the Social Communication Commission of the bishops' conference of Bangladesh, said, "freedom of expression is suffering from a culture of self-censorship."

He said the media in Bangladesh is "under indirect but strong pressure" and journalists have tried to play safe because they also want to "enjoy [the] safety and security of life."

"They are afraid of being critical of the government," said Father Rebeiro.

He said the media has become the target of a crackdown because it fills a vacuum in the absence of a real political opposition.

Bangladesh is ranked 150th out 180 countries, four places down from the previous year, in RSF's Press Freedom Index this year.

The RSF report said journalists have become victims of tough methods adopted by the increasingly authoritarian ruling party, the Awami League, which has been in power since 2008.

A total of 21 journalists have been murdered in Bangladesh since 1992.

Sultana Kamal, Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist, said the situation in Bangladesh today is "not good, not conducive for press freedom and for journalists."

He said journalists have already a "latent fear in their hearts because they know if they face attacks or killings, there will be no remedy or justice."

Shakhawat Hossain, president of the group Dhaka Reporters’ Unity, however, said media freedom in Bangladesh "is much better than India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka."

"I don’t think press freedom in Bangladesh is bad compared to neighboring countries," he said, adding that as a journalist, “I can express my opinion or write more or less freely."

 

Pakistan: Covering religion is 'risky business'

Reporting in Pakistan, especially about religion, has become a "risky business" in recent years.

Iqbal Khattak of RSF said "peer pressure" and fear of attacks have resulted in self-imposed censorship among journalists.

He cited the case of two journalists in Lahore who sought asylum abroad after reporting on religious minorities.

He said newsrooms have no policy on covering the rights of minority groups or promoting pluralism.

Father Qaiser Feroz, executive secretary of the Social Communication Commission of the bishops' conference, admitted that freedom of expression in Pakistan is "largely limited."

"[Journalists] deserve more respect," said the priest. He also pointed to the need to focus on reporting issues affecting religious minorities.

"Our voices are suppressed especially in news relating to church attacks," he said.

RSF reported that Pakistan's military has stepped up harassing the media significantly, especially in the run-up to last year's general election. 

"Intimidation, physical violence and arrests were used against journalists who crossed the line by trying to cover stories deemed off limits by the military," added the report.

In this file photo, Pakistani police try to stop journalists during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad on May 3, 2018. Reporting in Pakistan, especially on religion has become increasingly risky, activists say. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

 

Indonesia

Attacks on journalists have risen in the past year in Indonesia, according to the country's Alliance of Independent Journalists.

The organization reported at least 64 cases in 2018 compared to 60 reported the previous year.

The incidents included physical assault, beatings, damage to equipment, ban on coverage, threats and charges being filed in court.

Abdul Manan, chairman of the media alliance, said press freedom in Indonesia "remains poor" because journalists still face intimidation.

He blamed among others the implementation the "Electronic Information and Transaction" law, which he said has been used against journalists.

Among other provisions, the law aims to punish anyone found guilty of distributing, transmitting and/or making electronic information containing libel accessible to the public.

Ferdinandus Setu, spokesman of the Church's Communication and Information Ministry in Jakarta, said one of the problems for the Indonesian press is the lack of certification of many journalists.

He said media agencies and journalists must enhance their capabilities through certification.

 

Myanmar

Media freedom in Myanmar has regressed in recent years, seen most significantly with the high profile case of two Reuters reporters jailed for reporting on the plight of the Rohingya minority group.

The case of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo was included on a list of "most urgent cases regarding journalists" whose freedoms were being abused.

Media groups noted that gains achieved under former president Thein Sein from 2011-2015 have been lost since the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi came to power.

The Paris-based RSF ranked Myanmar 138th on its World Press Freedom Index due to a deterioration in "environment and self-censorship," "transparency" and "media independence."

On May 3, Press Freedom Day, civil society organizations called on the government to respect freedom of expression and to release political prisoners including the two reporters.

The group also called for the repeal of several laws that activists and media practitioners view as "repressive."

At least 47 media workers are currently facing various charges in cases related to their journalistic work.

In its report, RSF criticized the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose rise to power was once hailed with optimism, as a "shocking betrayal."

Reuters journalist Wa Lone (front) followed by Kyaw Soe Oo (center-back) make a court appearance in Yangon, Myanmar in this on Aug. 27, 2018 file photo. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

 

Sri Lanka

Journalists in Sri Lanka continue to await justice for attacks on media personnel over the past two decades.

From 2000 to 2015, at least 16 media personnel were killed, 11 of whom died during the administration of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015.

Media groups recorded at least 138 attacks on journalists during the same period.

Rights activist Anura Polgahawita, who also works as a journalist, said the present government under Maithripala Sirisena promised to take swift action in these cases, “but the wheels of justice have moved at an unacceptably slow rate."

He said several media institutions have been banned and shuttered, their offices even burned, "but there have been no investigations to bring perpetrators to justice."

This lack of progress in addressing cases has resulted in Sri Lanka regularly ranking highly on the annual impunity index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization.

Polgahawita expressed worry over a government move to impose "emergency regulations" on social media following the Easter bombings of churches and hotels last month.

He said the move obstructs the public’s "right to accurate and responsible information."

Christopher Joseph of India, John Zaw of Myanmar, Quintus Colombage of Sri Lanka, Rock Ronald Rozario of Bangladesh, Konradus Epa of Indonesia, and Kamran Chaudhry of Pakistan have contributed to this report.

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