JAILED FOR JOURNALISM, MURDERED WITH IMPUNITY
CPJ is fighting a war that will never be won.
Story by Scott Duke Harris
Edited by Jay Hartwell
For journalists in troubled parts of the world, these are dangerous times. The peril in war zones is understood. But the number of homicides is also rising.
Consider the case of Wai Yan Heinn. The 27-year-old publisher of Myanmar newsmagazine Iron Rose was found dead inside his Yangon office on April 16, his torso bearing 15 stab wounds, according to news reports. The unsolved murder followed his publication of articles about the country’s former ruling generals and their business associates and portrayed de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a “drone president.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists called for authorities to swiftly investigate the crime and bring the killer or killers to justice, but the trend of homicide is accompanied by one of impunity.
“Myanmar is fast emerging as a country where media murders go unpunished,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. Two other Myanmar media homicides since 2014 are unsolved.
The Philippines’ record is particularly bloody. When crime reporter Joaquin Briones was gunned down on March 13 in the island province of Masbate, he became the third Filipino journalist killed in 2017, and the 76th to be murdered since 1992. Among those, CPJ classifies 68, including Briones, as “murdered with impunity,” meaning that the crimes were never resolved by the justice system.
Meanwhile, authoritarian governments target journalists for jail. As of Dec. 1, 2016, CPJ counted 38 reporters incarcerated in China and eight in Vietnam, a country with about 1/14th the population of China.
Steven Butler, who spent two decades covering Asia for the Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and later was foreign editor of Knight-Ridder in Washington, D.C., is CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. N3 Magazine interviewed him about the challenges journalists face.
CPJ’s data suggests that, globally, press freedom is declining and journalists are in greater mortal and political danger.
The progress on press freedom seen around the world has been reversed in many countries. There’s no reason to expect this trend to end anytime soon with countries like China, for example, promoting their own brand of control beyond its border. On the other hand, there are many targets of opportunity to make things better, to score small victories that could help in places.
You oversee a vast region with dramatic cultural and political contrasts. Which Asian countries are of growing concern?
China, perhaps, offers the greatest challenges. Internal controls over print and online media have been ratcheted up, and too many journalists — mainly online operators — remain in jail. Foreign correspondents stationed in China face severe restrictions.
Moreover, China’s efforts to control the press are extending beyond its borders, to Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere in the region.
A combination of business and government pressures have partially tamed the once-freewheeling Indian press. In Pakistan, while journalist deaths and attacks from the Taliban have moderated, the new fear is of religious zealotry, of being labeled as a blasphemer, amid a difficult business environment that sometimes causes journalists to take excessive risks covering stories.
The Thai press still faces severe restrictions operating under military rule, although an eventual return to elected, constitutional government may offer some hope. Burma has also enjoyed progress toward a freer press, although it has been uneven.
In the Philippines, although rightwing trolling was an issue right after Duterte’s election, we haven’t seen an uptick in attacks on journalists, even as extrajudicial killings mount.
Of course, there’s a huge issue of impunity, of past unsolved murders of journalists, that remains.
How have the proliferation of the digital news, “citizen journalism” and social media affected CPJ’s work?
We’ve had to adopt a more flexible attitude as to who is a journalist. Bloggers in Vietnam and China have shown great courage and independence in reporting aspects of the news, even as they sometimes adopt social causes. Thai citizens run the risk of being accused of lese-majeste. Deliberately planted false news stories are a scourge everywhere.
We’ve had to adopt a functional definition to decide who is a journalist. It’s no longer just an employee of a traditional news organization.
How would you describe the day-to- day work of CPJ?
We monitor daily, press-related developments in Asia, with correspondents in the region and from researchers in the U.S. The first tool is to publicize, to name and shame when governments attack journalists or press freedom, or fail to protect journalists. Beyond that, we have programs to help journalists in trouble to pay for legal or medical fees, or sometimes to support relocation (often in partnership with other organizations).
How confident are you that CPJ’s work is having a positive impact?
I have no doubt that CPJ’s work has a tangible impact, even if it is sometimes hard to measure. Our ability to embarrass governments and put pressure for change, or, for example, to release imprisoned journalists, varies from country to country. CPJ is fighting a war that will never be completely won, but little victories add up and are meaningful.
This interview was edited for length. Scott Duke Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.