Malaysia, China and Pakistan use Covid-19 as excuse to block press freedoms

Topics Coronavirus | Malaysia | China

New Delhi, April 21: Malaysia has witnessed a remarkable fall in press freedom while China, which "continues to take Internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to unprecedented levels", is still firmly anchored among the worst countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which provides information about the media freedom situation worldwide.



The annual report published on Tuesday shows that journalism - "the main vaccine against disinformation" - is completely or partly blocked in 73 per cent of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation in the last 12 months.

It said that the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as grounds to block access to information with the journalists finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

According to the report, the country that fell the furthest in 2021 was Malaysia where the problems include a recent "anti-fake news" decree allowing the government to impose its own version of the truth.

Malaysia was ranked 101st in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index but the organisation said that many press freedom violations since Muhyiddin Yassin took over as Prime Minister in March 2020 have severely impacted its ranking in the new index released Tuesday.

The RSF had earlier this month called on the Malaysian government to immediately rescind a so-called 'anti-fake news' emergency ordinance that effectively bans any information about the coronavirus pandemic or current state of emergency that is not to its liking. This ordinance constitutes a gross violation of press freedom and another step in the flouting of the democratic process, RSF says.

The report blasted China (177th), saying it continues to be the world's biggest jailer of press freedom defenders in 2021 as the Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on news and information even more since the emergence of Covid-19. It said that Beijing is trying to export its oppressive model by promoting a "new world media order" under China's influence.

"Kunchok Jinpa, a leading media source of information about Tibet, died in February 2021 as a result of mistreatment in prison, just as Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, did in 2017. By relying on the massive use of new technology, President Xi Jinping's regime has imposed a social model based on control of news and information and online surveillance of its citizens," the report detailed on China.

The organisation mentioned that China's state and privately-owned media are under the Communist Party's ever-tighter control, while the administration creates more and more obstacles for foreign reporters.

"Seven journalists are still being held for their coverage of the pandemic and more than 450 social media users were briefly arrested for sharing 'false rumours' about the virus. More than 120 press freedom defenders are currently detained, often in conditions that pose a threat to their lives," RSF mentioned.


Pakistan, under the military establishment's thumb

Meanwhile, RSF mentioned that the Pakistani media, which have a long tradition of being very lively, have become a priority target for the country's 'deep state', a euphemism for the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the main military intelligence agency, and the significant degree of control they exercise over the civilian executive.

"The influence of this military 'establishment' which cannot stand independent journalism, has increased dramatically since Imran Khan became Prime Minister in July 2018. There have been many cases of brazen censorship in which the military have used one or other of its methods for exercising pressure. Distribution of newspapers, especially the leading daily Dawn, has been interrupted. Media outlets have been threatened with the withdrawal of advertising. The signals of TV channels that gave airtime to opposition representatives have been jammed," said RSF's country report on Pakistan.

It said that Pakistani journalists, who dared to broach subjects deemed off limits by the military, have been subjected to ISI-orchestrated harassment campaigns with several being abducted in 2020 in order to be told: "Stop covering unwelcome stories or your family won't find you alive."

The report says that journalists in Pakistan continue to be at risk in the field, especially in the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The stepping up of online 'regulation' which clearly means censorship and cyber-harassment campaigns by pro-government or pro-military trolls against journalists has made things worse in Pakistan.

"Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts," he added.

The Nordic nations' approach towards upholding press freedom continues with Norway being ranked first in the 2021 Index for the fifth year running even though its media have complained of a lack of access to state-held information about the pandemic. Finland maintained its position in second place while Sweden (up 1 at 3rd) recovered its third place ranking, which it had yielded to Denmark (down 1 at 4th) last year.

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(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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