Surveillance, censorship and press freedom in Asia

From India, our correspondent Jasvinder Sehgal spoke with colleagues throughout the region about their lives as journalists and the state of press freedom in Asia.

AUTHOR / Jasvinder Sehgal

Jasvinder Sehgal reporting.
Jasvinder Sehgal reporting.

With reporters scattered across Asia, freedom of the press is an issue close to our hearts here at Asia Calling.

Our dedicated reporters travel to conflict zones, in places like Kashmir and Myanmar, putting themselves at risk to bring you the stories of people at the front lines of conflict and repression: Stories that could easily get lost in the turmoil of conflict and power struggles.

And they’re not the only ones putting themselves in the line of danger. Since 2006, over 700 journalists have been killed doing their job. 

From India, our correspondent Jasvinder Sehgal spoke with colleagues throughout the region about their lives as journalists and the state of press freedom in Asia.

Tasneem Khalil was an outspoken writer at Bangladesh’s largest newspaper, The Daily Star. 

He wrote about extrajudicial killings. That’s until he was dragged from his house, thrown into a cell and tortured. 

“There’s no other way I can describe it,” he said, “other than an insurgency against atheists and free thinkers in Bangladesh and they are carrying out a series of assassinations.”

He’s one of dozens of journalists and bloggers attacked in Bangladesh in recent years. And one of hundreds of journalists around the globe who have been persecuted doing their job. 

According to the World Press Freedom Index, released in April, press freedom is in a "very serious situation" in 72 countries.

In almost two thirds of the countries surveyed, press freedom has deteriorated in the past year.

Among those with deteriorating freedom are the world’s largest countries, China and India. 

Eminent Indian journalist Tavleen Singh says the situation isn’t improving under the current government.

“Under this government, the Prime Minister has put himself in to a kind of a cocoon and has put all the journalists at a distance and that is a terrible mistake,” she stated.

Journalists in India are increasingly targeted in online smear campaigns. And so self-censorship is growing.

Kaveetha Singh, a 25-year-old journalism student, is aware that as a young journalist, she is entering a new media environment. Journalists are now under closer surveillance than ever before.

“There is an electronic media monitoring center which has 200 content editors watching and monitoring over 600 news channels,” Singh explained. 

“The government has also created national media analytics, which watches everything on the net, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. The journalists are categorized as positive, negative and neutral which means that the Indian media is not free,” she said.    

According to Reporters Without Borders, increased surveillance, and authoritarian leaders are undermining media freedom in the Asia Pacific – a region of 34 countries that accounts for more than half of the world’s population. 

Under the military junta, press freedom in Thailand has been hit hard over the past 3 years. Wide reaching new laws now grant ambiguous powers that allow surveillance and detention of journalists and critics.

“More and more people have been arrested or facing charges for expressing their thoughts, sharing information or reporting facts,” reporter Kannikar Petchkaew told us. 

As Asia Calling’s Bangkok reporter, she’s no stranger to the risks of journalism. Earlier this year she snuck into the front lines of conflict in Myanmar and spoke with rebel leaders. But the situation in Thailand has her worried.

“Censorship is common for journalists here,” she said. “Whenever I do reports about this country I have to check every single sentence and every word to make sure that I won’t be in trouble. But it’s getting harder and harder.”    

The region’s fastest growing power, China, is one of the very worst countries for media freedom.

With over 100 journalists and bloggers behind bars, China has more citizen journalists detained than anywhere else in the world.

Asia Calling’s Abhijan Barua was a reporter for China Radio International for five years, and he believes there is a pervasive culture of repression.

“It’s not just that politically the government controls media, people minds have been shaped in a way where they don’t have this tendency to ever question anything,” Barua commented.

In Pakistan, media faces pressure from a range of vested interests.

“There are different groups like political groups, religious groups, militant groups and sometimes the security agencies that require the journalists to go for censorship on certain issues,” said Naeem Sahoutara, Asia Calling’s Pakistan correspondent.

He says media outlets are blackmailed, pressured not to publish certain content, with the threat that advertising will be withdrawn. 

But Naeem says, journalists will continue to rail for freedom.

“They are still struggling to work independently and to work with full freedom and that still is a far dream, it seems.”



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