BEIJING/BANGKOK/KUALA LUMPUR/NEW DELHI – In many countries across Asia, governments are growing less tolerant of critical reporting, even arresting journalists and closing media outlets in some cases. In China, authorities recently removed an online story from a financial magazine about censorship — a taboo topic — while Thailand’s military junta has detained journalists for what it calls “attitude adjustment” and shut down TV and radio stations.
A look at how and where journalists are coming under renewed pressure:
China: setting the tone
The ruling Communist Party has long exercised heavy-handed direction over news media, but recent events speak to a further tightening of ideological controls.
President and party leader Xi Jinping set the tone with visits in February to the official Xinhua News Agency, the party-controlled People’s Daily newspaper and state broadcaster CCTV. At each place, he stated that absolute loyalty to the party is the media’s highest priority.
Negative responses to Xi’s visit were censored on China’s once-vibrant social media. One outspoken critic, real estate magnate Ren Zhiqiang, had his accounts suspended. When Weibo, China’s hugely popular version of Twitter — which along with Facebook is blocked in China — first came out, people could post quite freely, but now controversial comments are quickly removed.
The pinch is being felt even at more market-driven newspapers, magazines and websites that, while technically controlled by the state, had enjoyed more latitude in news reporting. In an Orwellian example, an article posted online by the popular business and finance magazine Caixin was removed because it broached the taboo topic of censorship.
Most recently, more than a dozen editors and technicians have gone missing and are believed to be under investigation after an anonymous letter calling for Xi’s resignation was posted on a government-backed news portal. Dissident writers have been detained or their families in China harassed for criticizing the secret investigation. One writer said Monday that police were holding three of his siblings in retaliation for an article he wrote condemning the detention of a fellow writer.
Thailand: attitude fix
A junta that took power in a 2014 coup has detained journalists for what it calls “attitude adjustment,” shut TV and radio stations for perceived critical coverage of the government, banned press events and most recently tightened visa requirements for foreign reporters.
Under new measures announced last month, only journalists working for a registered news agency will be able to obtain or renew journalists’ visas, a move that press freedom groups say would bar some freelancers from working in the country.
Media freedom groups say the junta has used the pretext of maintaining peace and order, after years of political upheaval, to employ a massive campaign of censorship and intimidation in what was once considered a bastion of the free press in Southeast Asia. Reporters Without Borders has called the crackdown “a blitzkrieg against freely reported news and information.”
Thai journalists have faced a barrage of pressures over the past two years. One prominent editorial cartoonist from the Thai Rath newspaper was detained twice and warned he could be prosecuted if he continued to satirize the junta chief in his drawings. A senior writer for The Nation newspaper who was openly critical of the coup was detained twice and ultimately fired.
A few foreign reporters have had their visa applications denied since the junta took power, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, which itself has had several events banned by the junta.
Malaysia: Najib scandal
The government is cracking down on the media as a financial scandal engulfs Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Two Australian TV journalists were briefly arrested this month after they tried to question Najib about the scandal during his visit to eastern Sarawak state. The duo were released and deported after the Australian government intervened.
At issue is more than $700 million deposited into Najib’s bank accounts in early 2013. Critics accuse him of corruption and say the money came from the indebted state investment fund 1MDB, which he founded in 2009. The attorney general has cleared him of wrongdoing, saying most of the money was a donation from the Saudi royal family.
Malaysia’s government has also blocked some new websites, including the popular news portal Malaysian Insider, over critical reports of the government. The portal, owned by the Edge Media Group, shut down recently, citing a loss of income caused by the government’s ban.
Last year, the government also suspended two newspapers under the Edge group over its coverage alleging corruption at 1MDB. The Edge challenged the government’s suspension in court and succeeded in getting the ban lifted.
India: Hindu hardliners
Intimidation of journalists is nothing new in India, but it has taken on a new element under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
India, the world’s largest democracy, has a relatively free press, but the current BJP government has been criticized for not trying to stop fringe rightwing elements that threaten journalists and activists in the name of patriotism.
The host of a late February newscast on whether India had become intolerant of dissent became a target of intimidation herself after one of her guests referred to a pamphlet that called the Hindu goddess Durga a sex worker. Sindhu Sooryakumar was bombarded with more than 2,500 threatening calls accusing her of disparaging the deity. Six members of a militant group linked with the BJP have been arrested.
During a court hearing for a university student charged with sedition for allegedly making anti-India statements, lawyers beat reporters and damaged cameras and recording equipment while demanding they not cover public protests against the student’s arrest. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley condemned the violence, saying “it was a terrible exception.”
Sujata Madhok, secretary-general of the Delhi Union of Journalists, accused the BJP of targeting Muslim and Christian religious minorities and the underprivileged Dalits. “The BJP would like people to believe it’s the handiwork of the party’s fringe elements, but the fringe elements appear to be occupying the center-stage.”
The previous Congress Party government was accused of paying lip service to minorities, but it kept Hindu hardliners in check. That is not necessarily the case now.
Japan: tightening screws?
A public warning by the communications minister in February that broadcasters could have their licenses revoked if coverage isn’t politically fair is seen by many as the latest attempt to pressure journalists to toe the government line.
The government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strengthened its strategy to get official views prominently reflected in both domestic and foreign media on defense, World War II history and other divisive issues. Officials complain to journalists about coverage they consider biased, while Abe gives exclusive interviews to selected media, often those sharing his views.
Media watchers say Japanese media traditionally practices self-restraint to avoid trouble with officials in a cozy “press club” environment, weakening their commitment to serve as watchdog and resist pressure or favors. Heads of major media companies regularly dine with Abe.
However, the communications minister’s statements that TV licenses could be revoked have triggered outrage from some prominent journalists, who say they violate freedom of the press and intimidate the media.
The recent resignations of three outspoken newscasters have fueled speculation of government pressure, although the three say they were not pressed to resign.