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Hard Times for Press Freedom in Asia

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The Debate

Hard Times for Press Freedom in Asia

“Nearly half of the twenty countries with the least amount of press freedom…are located in the Asia-Pacific.”

Nearly half of the twenty countries with the least amount of press freedom in the world are located in the Asia-Pacific, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index.

Of the twenty countries making the bottom of the list, nine are located in the Asia-Pacific. In ascending order these countries are: North Korea, Iran, China, Vietnam, Laos, Uzbekistan, Laos, Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan.

Of these nine “worst of the worst,” only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan saw significant changes from their positions during the last year, with the former dropping six spots and the latter declining by seven spots from the 2012 World Press Freedom Index.

Other parts of Asia saw more dramatic swings over the course of 2012. Most of these were in the wrong direction.

Singapore, for instance, dropped 14 spots from 135 to 149. Other countries in Southeast Asia fared worse, with Malaysia dropping 23 spots to 145th and Cambodia plummeting 26 spots to 143th of 179 countries surveyed.

In between the two with the 144th most free press freedoms in the world was Bangladesh, which had dropped 15 spots on the year. It was not alone among South Asian nations that saw a decline in press freedom last year. In fact, Pakistan dropped 7 spots, India declined by 9 places, and Nepal by 12. Maldives, which suffered from political stability all year, declined 30 spots but still ranked at 103, much higher than Pakistan’s 159, India’s 140, and Nepal’s 118 rankings.

Reporters Without Borders noted that India’s ranking this year was its “lowest since 2002 because of increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow.”

Even the democratic states in Northeast Asia saw at least marginal setbacks, with South Korea falling six spots to finish 50th, and Taiwan dropping two spots to finish 47th.

Most shocking however was Japan, which fell a whopping 31 places from 22nd place to 53th in terms of press freedoms over the course of 2012. Reporters Without Borders justified this steep drop by pointing to growing “censorship of nuclear industry coverage and its failure to reform the ‘kisha club’ system.”

There were some bright spots in Asia, however. Notably, Myanmar climbed another 18 spots last year, finishing at 151. This is only four spots behind the Philippines who finished the year at 147 out of 179 countries after dropping six places. Reporters Without Borders noted in its analysis that Myanmar had previously “been in the bottom 15 every year since 2002 but now, thanks to the Burmese spring’s unprecedented reforms, it has reached its best-ever position.”

Afghanistan saw even more dramatic improvements, rising 22 places to finish 128th. Reporters Without Borders cited “the fact that no journalists are in prison” as the reason for Kabul’s rise in its rankings. At the same time, it said that Afghanistan continued to face many challenges and suggested it was not optimistic about Afghanistan’s media freedom after foreign troops leave the country at the end of next year.

With the 9th ranking New Zealand was the only country outside of Europe to be ranked among the top ten countries with the most press freedoms. The next highest ranked Asia-Pacific country was Australia at 26.

Reporters Without Borders is a French-based non-governmental organization that advocates for freedom of information and freedom of expression as the “the foundation of any democracy.”

Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.