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Press Freedom Under Fire in South Asia, 2008-09

May 2, 2009

The seventh annual report on press freedom in South Asia, produced by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) for the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), documents alarming trends in working conditions for journalists, typified by greatly increased risks to physical safety, rising job insecurity and a commercial environment that tends to undermine many ethical norms.

Under Fire: Press Freedom in South Asia 2008-2009 will be officially launched by the IFJ and SAMSN at UNESCO′s Media and Dialogue regional conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, on World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The report notes that after years of buoyant growth, only restrained in some cases by politics, such as the two-year state of "emergency" in Bangladesh, media industries in the region are now confronting the fallout of the global economic downturn.

Job losses in journalism are undermining professional morale in a region where physical threats are already taking a serious toll.

Under Fire catalogues a number of cases of journalists being killed in the region. Statistically, the figures are in keeping with long-period averages in most countries. But a relative deterioration is evident in:

* A spike in violent incidents reported from India, which has been in relative terms a more secure environment for journalism;
* The impunity with which journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan; and
* The continuing failure of State authorities in any of these countries to bring to justice the murderers of journalists.

At the same time, there is a tendency for State authorities in all countries to use legal provisions dealing with exceptional situations, such as "terrorism" and "sedition", to prosecute or intimidate journalists.

The regulatory environment in most countries of South Asia remains ill-defined, especially for the rapidly growing electronic media. In several countries, opposing political parties and civil society actors ensure that there are few accepted standards in the observance of the free speech right.

India, despite its long and well-established journalistic traditions, continues to be convulsed by debates on ethics. Concerns about the coverage of middle-class crime and terrorism have led to greater public interrogation of the media.

In Pakistan, journalists have utilised their new freedoms to deeply question the quality of the democratic transition that was inaugurated in the country in 2008. Several dissonances have arisen in the process, heightened by the global power-game being played out in Pakistan and its immediate neighbourhood. The consequence is growing hostility toward free and fair reporting.

Journalists in Sri Lanka have suffered the worst adversities by all standards, considerably more serious than even the travails that counterparts in Pakistan have faced. The daylight murder of one of the country′s best-known editors, the abduction-style arrest of another and the continuing prosecution of still another on charges of terrorism, represent a new low for a country that is perhaps approaching the climactic stages of a quarter century-long civil war.

A new spirit of contention has gripped Nepal, after the seeming placidity of the first few months of the country′s transition to democracy. Since nation-wide elections to the Constituent Assembly early in 2008 and the swearing in of a new elected government under the leadership of the Maoists, conditions for journalism have deteriorated. This has represented a very poor reward for the media community, which spearheaded the movement against monarchical absolutism and contributed in a significant way to the restoration of democracy in 2006.

As Afghanistan heads toward national elections later in 2009, the situation for journalism is seriously muddled. The media has become an arena where armed groups contest fiercely for political space. As elections approach, this is a potentially explosive issue for a public that believes that the media should be a source of information, rather than a tool of propaganda.

All other countries in the region are, in their own ways, undergoing the pangs of transition. Bangladesh went in for nation-wide elections during the year and a democratic government is now in authority, purportedly committed to media rights and the public right to information. But the first few months of the transition have been rocky and there is a serious risk that with attention diverted toward curbing sources of turbulence, the legislative effort on matters of essential importance to journalism could be banished to obscurity.

Meanwhile, Bhutan continues its transition from absolute monarchy. Voices are raised against the powers that have been assumed by newly created regulatory institutions. And the problems relating to ethnic groups that have been expelled from the country continue to fester. However, with Bhutan′s relatively peaceable political atmosphere, there is optimism that these issues will be sorted out without serious disharmony.

The overall prognosis of Under Fire is gloomy. An urgent requirement is for journalists′ unions and associations in the region to unite on the basis of agreed principles, to establish the foundations for a shared discourse on press freedom, which could be the precursor for a larger project to bring peace to a region that is torn by deep internal turmoil.

To access the full report, see:

To access the report annex, Incidents of Press Freedom Violations by Country, May 2008-April 2009, see:

For more information contact:
Sukumar Muralidharan
International Federation of Journalists, New Delhi
Phone: +91 124 405 6719
Cell: +91 981 051 8009

IFJ Asia-Pacific
Phone: +612 9333 0919

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