2021 a Dark Year for Press Freedom in Asia: Report

World Press Freedom Day needed more than ever . . .

In commemoration of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the Paris-headquartered Reporters Without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranked 180 countries according to five indicators: political, legal, economic, sociocultural, and safety. Each economy is ranked as good, satisfactory, problematic, difficult, or very serious. The ranking of most Asian economies deteriorated over the last year and fall between problematic and very serious. The UN General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993. The day acts as a reminder for governments and media professionals to respect and reflect upon press freedom and ethics, assess the state of press freedom, and honour those who have lost their lives or been persecuted for doing their job.

Downward trend across most of Asia . . .

Hong Kong took the steepest drop, from 80th place in 2021 to 148th this year. Elsewhere in Northeast Asia, China inched up two spots to 175th, Taiwan rose five spots to 38th, Mongolia fell 22 spots to 90th, South Korea fell one place to 43rd, Japan fell four spots to 71st, and North Korea ranked dead last. Most Southeast and South Asian economies also ranked poorly. Of particular note was Myanmar’s 36-spot drop to 176th. Some notable exceptions to this trend were Timor-Leste (rose 54 spots to 17th), Bhutan (rose 33 spots to 33rd), and Nepal (rose 30 spots to 76th). The report attributes these ranking improvements to the importance of free press in emerging democracies (Timor-Leste and Bhutan) and the rich media landscape and constitutional protection of the free press in Nepal.

What is fuelling the trends?

The report points to a few broad trends to explain the worsening of press freedom worldwide, including “the effects of a globalised and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.” The report argues that press freedom deteriorated throughout the Asia Pacific due to the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, many democratic countries facing “pressure from increasingly authoritarian and/or nationalist governments,” and “growing control of large industrial groups, whose influence encourages the self-censorship of journalists and editorial staff.” The report praised New Zealand (ranked 11th) for “having developed institutional safeguards against political and economic influence.”