2015 worst year for press freedom in South Asia

Speakers, representing mostly moderate Muslims, condemned the cartoons and the western media that published them for fomenting hate between the Islamic world and the West and sparking riots across Pakistan. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) Photograph:( Getty )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jun 01, 2016, 06.45 AM (IST) Daniele Pagani

Last year – 2015 – was the worst year ever to be a journalist in South Asia.   

Reporters are routinely threatened, attacked, jailed, and murdered every year in the region according to a new Reporters Without Borders report.   

Working with the constant fear of being killed or hurt is no easy task. The feeling that something bad could happen at any time affects every aspect of your life. And you suddenly start feeling unsafe everywhere and all the time.   

According to the World Press Freedom Index 2016, there has been a “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom around the world.   

The news from South Asia is particularly bad. “The media freedom situation worsened significantly or stagnated” in the region the report says.  

The Maldives came in at 112 out of 180 countries on the index. It turns out the country is not just an earthly paradise of palms and coral. Radical Islam has been gaining in strength in the archipelago; freedom of the press has been one of its victims.  

The Communication Authority of the Maldives which controls all communication in the country, including the media, launched the first attack on the press in 2011 by shutting down journalist Ismail Khilath Rasheed's blog accusing him of producing anti-Islamic material.  

Rasheed fought back by organising a small rally in the capital Mal? in support of the freedom of expression. He was attacked by a group of men armed with stones. They ended up fracturing his skull. A year later, while he was walking near his home, a man tried to slit his throat. Fortunately, the attacker missed a vital artery and Rasheed survived, but his attacker remains unidentified and at large.   

The situation has not improved since. This April, the Maldivian police attacked a rally's participants demanding greater press freedom. Sixteen journalists were arrested. Four other reporters covering demonstrations against the imprisonment of former president Mohamed Nasheed were imprisoned.  

There was good news, at least on paper, from Sri Lanka. The country moved 24 positions up the rankings as compared to 2014. Newly-elected President Maithripala Sirisena's government seems to be better for journalists. It lifted restrictions on foreign journalists visiting the country – they are now free to move about and no longer have to get their visas cleared by the defence ministry. And all exiled journalists have been invited to return to the country. 

During the 10 years that Mahinda Rajapaksa was president, reporters allegedly received constant threats, and as many as 34 lost their lives. The murder of Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, founder of the newspaper The Sunday Leader, remains unsolved. In 2009, while he was driving to office, armed motorcyclists flanked his car and shot him. The Sirisena government has now decided to reopen the case and, interestingly, his brother has been appointed Sri Lanka's consul general in Sidney.  

Pakistan remains the most dangerous place to work. Journalists in the country are faced with threats from all fronts – extremist groups, hardline Islamist organisations and government institutions. The resulting atmosphere of fear often leads to high levels of self-censorship.  

Bangladesh, too, has become increasingly deadly for journalists. Several bloggers critical of Islamist extremists have recently been hacked to death; fundamentalist groups claimed responsibility for a number of the killings.  

India is also surprisingly bad for reporters. Despite a lively media scene, the world's largest democracy does not seem to be a good place for a free press. India ranked 133rd on the World Press Freedom Index.  

It is also among the top 15 countries in which a reporter is most likely to face abuse and even Afghanistan fares better. The report states: “The governments of India… took little action in response to violence against media personnel and were sometimes directly involved in violations of their freedom.”  

The report's findings are not just bad news for journalists, they are bad news for everybody.  

Journalists can end up self-censoring if they find themselves threatened. That is perhaps the most dangerous threat to journalism.  A journalist must question, verify versions, and find discrepancies. And if he does his job honestly and professionally it should be made public. Sometimes this means exposing influential people. A reporter who fears for his or her life might decide to look away, to pretend something just did not happen. That is exactly what ruins a good investigation. Fortunately, some journalists have been brave enough to continue reporting despite having been badly threatened, but this cannot and should not be the norm.  

Media is useful to society so long as it is independent and safe -- rights that any democratic government should protect. Media needs to be free to do its job without fear and to be effective.