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Asia-Pacific press freedom takes another step back

North Korea, China at rock bottom as Hong Kong slips from top 10

Journalists and citizens rally in May 2016 to demand protection of press freedoms after the abrupt firing of a veteran editor at Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- Freedom of the press is eroding all across the globe, according to the latest findings by watchdog organization Reporters without Borders. While relatively speaking, the Asia-Pacific region is not as bad as others, like the Middle East and Eastern Europe, there seems not to be much to celebrate on this front.

The Paris-based nonprofit, known as RSF, evaluates and maintains an index of freedoms granted to journalists in 180 countries. It takes into account such factors as the level of pluralism, media independence, the quality of the legislative framework, and the safety of journalists.

With 112 countries, or 62%, of the total seeing their scores worsen, and those with situations classified as "bad" or "very bad" now up to 72 countries, RSF describes media freedom globally as "under threat now more than ever."

The Asia-Pacific region, which includes 32 countries by its classification, fared better in absolute terms than either the Middle East and North Africa or Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The deterioration of its index over the past five years was smaller than anywhere else, including the Americas, Africa, and the European Union and Balkans region.

However, Clement So York-kee, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review that these scores usually correlate with "major events [that] happened in some countries." In recent years, acts of terror and political turmoil occurred more in places like the Middle East, Europe and the U.S., "which could have a negative impact on perception of press freedom," he said.

Indeed, the Asia-Pacific seems not much better off. North Korea overtook its usual rivals Turkmenistan and Eritrea this year as the worst in the world, in 180th place. Laos, Vietnam, and China -- three more remaining Leninist one-party regimes in the region -- are just slightly less problematic, ranking between 170th and 176th in the world.

China now has over 100 journalists and bloggers behind bars, including prominent journalist Gao Yu and Huang Qi, founder of independent news website 64Tianwang. The largest economy in the region is the global leader in journalist and blogger prisoners, followed by Vietnam.

It is not only those countries considered "very bad" that are alarming, but also ones considered better.

New Zealand secured its position as the freest in the Asia-Pacific again but slipped eight slots to leave the global top 10. RSF attributed this mainly to a new bill announced last August that would criminalize leaking government information to the media. Democratic Pacific peer Tonga slid 12 places in the global ranking to 49th. There, "some political leaders do not hesitate to sue media outlets, exposing them to the risk of heavy damages awards," according to RSF.

Three Scandinavian countries -- Norway, Sweden and Finland -- led the global ranking.

In North Asia, Mongolia dropped by nine places to 69th globally. The country's media have suffered from a series of defamation charges but are now feeling the pinch even stronger in the run-up to the presidential election in June. The parliament is about to debate amending legislation on defamation, which could lead to heavier fines on journalists. According to reports, local television stations went dark Wednesday evening in protest of this move.

Hong Kong, once boasting the freest press in the region, sank even further to 73rd in the world and missed the top 10 in the Asia-Pacific for the first time since this ranking began in 2002.

"Despite repeated warnings by media freedom organizations, the erosion of Hong Kong's media independence vis-a-vis Beijing is now under way," according to RSF. The watchdog points to Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding's purchase of an English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, as "extremely disturbing."

The sudden disappearance of five local booksellers distributing politically sensitive publications was another recent blow. Survey results announced by the Hong Kong Journalists Association in April revealed that 71% of respondents from the general public and 97% of journalist respondents said this incident has "seriously affected press freedom in Hong Kong."

So of the Chinese University of Hong Kong backed the findings by the watchdog, saying it is "quite clear that Hong Kong's news media environment is not getting any better" as negative incidents occur every year. He pointed out that press freedom in Hong Kong "generally reflects the overall sociopolitical situation and governance, which were going downward in the past few years ... so it is not surprising."

A further blow to Hong Kong, perhaps, came from RSF, which has announced plans to open its first Asian regional office in Taiwan this April. Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said the choice was made "not only with regards to its central geographic location and ease of operating logistics, but also considering its status of being the freest place in Asia in our annual Press Freedom Index ranking." Indeed, Taiwan climbed six places to rank 45th globally in the latest gauge, topping the list in Asia not counting Pacific countries -- far ahead of the former British colony.

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