Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, speaks as political activists hold placards during a demonstration in support of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, shot dead in Myanmar while in military custody in October 2014, protest his killing in Yangon. AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries in advance of the publication of the latest Attacks on the Press report, forthcoming on April 27th. North Korea, Vietnam, China and Myanmar are among the world’s worst places for press freedom. These repressive nations threaten jail terms, Internet restrictions and other tactics to censor the press.
The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.
Imprisonment is the most effective form of intimidation and harassment used against journalists according to CPJ research. Seven of the 10 most censored countries-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, and Myanmar-are also among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.
More than half of the journalists imprisoned globally are charged with anti-state crimes, including in China, the world’s worst jailer and the eighth most censored country. Of the 44 journalists imprisoned-the largest figure for China since CPJ began its annual census in 1990-29 were held on anti-state charges. Other countries that use the charge to crush critical voices include Saudi Arabia (third most censored), where the ruling monarchy, not satisfied with silencing domestic dissent, teamed up with other governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure that criticism of leadership in any member state is dealt with severely.
According to CPJ, 9.7 percent of north Korea’s population has cell phones, a number that excludes access to phones smuggled in from China. In place of the global Internet, to which only a select few powerful individuals have access, some schools and other institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet. And despite the arrival of an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, the state has such a tight grip on the news agenda that newsreel was re-edited to remove Kim Jong Un’s disgraced uncle from the archives after his execution.
These tactics are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries. To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.
Internet access is highly restricted in countries under Communist Party rule-North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba. In countries with advanced technology such as China, Internet restrictions are combined with the threat of imprisonment to ensure that critical voices cannot gain leverage online. Thirty-two of China’s 44 jailed journalists worked online.
Specifically, a look at each of the countries in Asia making the list and the censorship tactics their regimes employ:
North Korea: Article 53 of the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but even with an Associated Press bureau-staffed by North Koreans and located in the Pyongyang headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency-and a small foreign press corps from politically sympathetic countries, access to independent news sources is extremely limited.
Nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which focuses on the political leadership’s statements and activities. Internet is restricted to the political elite, but some schools and state institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet called Kwangmyong, according to the AP.
North Koreans looking for independent information have turned to bootlegged foreign TV and radio signals and smuggled foreign DVDs, particularly along the porous border with China. Although cell phones are banned, some citizens have been able in recent years to access news through smuggled phones, which rely on Chinese cell towers.
South Korean newspapers have reported that North Korea in 2013 started manufacturing smartphones that run on a network built by the Egyptian company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp. Traders in street markets are regularly seen with 3G phones that can support video exchange and texting, according to travelers returning from North Korea.
After Kim Jong Un ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed (around the time of the second anniversary of his father’s death), any mention of Jang was removed from state media archives, including official video from which Jang was carefully edited. Jang was vilified in the media as the “despicable human scum, who was worse than a dog.”
Vietnam: Vietnam’s Communist Party-run government allows no privately held print or broadcast outlets. Under the 1999 Media Law (Article 1, Chapter 1), all media working in Vietnam must serve as “the mouthpiece of Party organizations.” The Central Propaganda Department holds mandatory weekly meetings with local newspaper, radio, and TV editors to hand down directives on which topics should be emphasized or censored in their news coverage. Forbidden topics include the activities of political dissidents and activists; factional divisions inside the Communist Party; human rights issues; and any mention of ethnic differences between the country’s once-divided northern and southern regions.
Independent bloggers who report on sensitive issues have faced persecution through street-level attacks, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, and harsh prison sentences for anti-state charges. Vietnam is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with at least 16 behind bars. Authorities widely block access to websites critical of the government, including such popular foreign-hosted blogs as Danlambao, which covers politics, human rights issues, and disputes with China. In September 2013, a new law extended state censorship to social media platforms, making it illegal to post any material, including foreign news articles, deemed to “oppose the state” or “harm national security.”
Authorities have increasingly used Article 258, the anti-state law that vaguely criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms,” to threaten and prosecute independent bloggers. At least three bloggers have been convicted under the law, which allows for seven-year prison sentences.
China: For more than a decade, China has been among the top three jailers of journalists in the world, a distinction that it is unlikely to lose any time soon. Document 9, a secret white paper dated April 22, 2014, which was widely leaked online and to the international press, included the directive to “combat seven political perils” and reject the concept of “universal values” and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.” Document 9 made it clear that the role of the media is to support the party’s unilateral rule. The paper reasserted the necessity for China’s technological and human censors to be ever more vigilant when keeping watch over the country’s 642 million Internet users-about 22 percent of the world’s online population.
In late November 2014, Xu Xiao, a poetry and arts editor for the Beijing-based business magazine Caixin, was detained on suspicion of “endangering national security.” The Central Propaganda Department warned editors not to report on the investigation into Xu, raising fears that the tactics used to stifle political dissent would broaden to publications looking critically at the arts.
International journalists trying to work in China have faced obstacles, with visas delayed or denied. Although some visa restrictions between the U.S. and China have eased, during a press conference in Beijing with U.S. President Barack Obama in November 2014 Xi argued that international journalists facing visa restrictions had brought the trouble on themselves.
Gao Yu, one of 44 journalists behind bars in China, was detained on charges of illegally providing state secrets abroad, days after details of Document 9 appeared in Mirror Monthly, a Chinese-language political magazine in New York. Gao, 70, confessed on official state broadcaster CCTV, but during her closed trial, on November 21, 2014, she said that the confession was false and made only to prevent her son from being threatened and harassed, her lawyer said. She was handed a seven-year prison sentence in a Beijing court on Friday.
Myanmar: Despite an end to more than four decades of pre-publication censorship in 2012, Myanmar’s media remains tightly controlled. The Printers and Publishers Registration Law, enacted in March 2014, bans news that could be considered insulting to religion, disturbing to the rule of law, or harmful to ethnic unity. Publications must be registered under the law, and those found in violation of its vague provisions risk de-registration.
National security-related laws, including the colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act, are used to threaten and imprison journalists who report on sensitive military matters. For example, five journalists with the independent weekly newspaper Unity were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor, reduced on appeal to seven years, for reporting on a secretive military facility allegedly involved in chemical weapons production.
Journalists are regularly barred from reporting from the military side of conflict with ethnic groups. Aung Kyaw Naing, a local freelance reporter who had embedded with rebel forces, was shot dead while in military custody in October 2014 after being apprehended by government troops in a restive area near the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Three journalists and two publishers of the independent newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of defaming the state. Their offense: publishing a false statement made by a political activist group that claimed that pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders had formed an interim government to replace Thein Sein’s administration.
The list of ten most censored countries is based on CPJ research: countries are measured with the use of a series of benchmarks, including the absence of privately owned or independent media, blocking of websites, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, license requirements to conduct journalism, restrictions on journalists’ movements, monitoring of journalists by authorities, jamming of foreign broadcasts and blocking of foreign correspondents.