A campus journalist joins a demonstration in Manila to protest alleged attempts by the Philippine government to suppress press freedom. (Photo by Angie de Silva/ucanews.com)
Media freedom in the Asia Pacific region remains under threat as incidents of violence against journalists continue to rise in countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders noted that the Philippines, which is touted as having the freest and liveliest press in Asia, sank lower in this year's index.
With a score of 42.53, the country slipped to 133rd from 127th out of the 180 countries on the list.
Reporters Without Borders noted that the Philippines has become the deadliest country for journalists in Asia after four of five media workers targeted by gunmen were killed in 2017.
The media watchdog noted that the Philippine press has been challenged by President Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened journalists critical of his administration.
"There have been countless examples of Philippine government harassment of media that voice any kind of criticism of Duterte's 'war on drugs,'" read the report.
"Verbal violence and physical violence are closely linked," noted the report, citing several instances when Duterte lambasted media organization who criticized his policies.
The Philippine government, however, maintained that the government's moves, which includes investigations into media assets, are "not an attack on press freedom."
Efforts to protect journalists
The Presidential Task Force on Media Security, which was created by the government to address attacks on journalists, said it "note(s) with concern the country's surprising drop in the index."
The agency said "concrete and aggressive steps" have been taken by the task force and its media partners to stamp out the problem of media violence.
Task Force chief Joel Egco, a journalist before joining the government, said the Philippines' ranking remains an improvement from its 138th rank prior to the Duterte administration.
Egco took exception to the observations of Reporters Without Borders attributing the drop in ranking to alleged government harassment of media that are critical of the "war on drugs."
"[These] are negated by facts on record, testimonies from victims and their families as well as voluminous documents in the possession of the Task Force," said Egco.
He said it is "unfortunate" that the drop in the ranking of the Philippines in the index came at a time when steps are being taken by the government to ensure safety of media workers.
"This definitely undermines and casts a demoralizing effect on the efforts of all stakeholders to eradicate all forms of media violence in the country," said Egco.
He said the Philippines is about to submit to the Committee to Protect Journalists documents to prove that the country can now be removed from the list of "most dangerous places to live for journalists."
The New York based organization has recently removed Afghanistan, Colombia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Nepal from the list because of the decline of crimes against journalists.
Asia has worst violator of freedom to inform
The 2018 Press Freedom Index noted that the Asia Pacific region continues to have the world's worst violator of the freedom to inform, which is North Korea.
The report said the growing use of smartphones in the country has resulted in "draconian control of communications and the national intranet."
Reading, viewing, or listening to a foreign media outlet can lead to arrest and time in a concentration camp in North Korea, the report noted.
The annual report also noted that democracies in the region is being threatened by what has been described as China's "media control model," which is being copied in other Asian countries.
The index noted that China under Xi Jinping is "getting closer ... to a contemporary version of totalitarianism."
It said that new technology is being used in censorship and surveillance, with ordinary citizens being jailed just for sharing content on a social network site.
The report said more than 50 journalists are currently detained in China, many of them reportedly become victims of mistreatment and lack of medical care.
The report said Vietnam and Cambodia seem to follow China's model with media under complete government control.
Hate speech on the rise
In Myanmar, reporting on the Rohingya crisis was not only met with harassment but most recently by hate messages aimed that journalists.
"Any journalist who does not fall in with the prevailing anti-Muslim discourse is subjected to violent verbal harassment by Buddhist extremists," noted the report.
Hate speech has also become an issue in India, which has fallen another two places to 138th.
Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, Hindu fundamentalists have been referring to journalists in extremely violent terms, said the report.
There were instances that journalists who report on something that are viewed as critical to the ruling party's ideology were insulted online and even threatened with death.
"As elsewhere in the world ... this verbal violence has tragically led to physical violence," read the report, citing the case of newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh who was killed after being the target of hate speech.
The physical violence against journalists is largely responsible for India's low ranking in the index. At least three journalists were murdered in connection with their work in the past year while more were reported killed in circumstances that were still unclear.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, death threats, abductions, and torture, continued to be real threats to media practitioners.
At least 18 journalists and media workers were killed in Afghanistan in 2017, although the country's ranking rose two places because of the creation of committees for the safety of journalists.
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