On 3 May 2013, World Press Freedom Day, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) with UNESCO support launched a report on South Asia, the eleventh in an annual series that reviews all developments that have a bearing on media freedom and quality journalism in the region.
IFJ's South Asia Press Freedom Report for 2013, titled "Building Resistance, Organising for Change", seeks to bring into sharp focus the diverse experiences of media practitioners in the South Asian region. Over the year under review, these have ranged from the continuing threat of legal action and the growing menace of physical violence, to the challenges posed by new forms of inter-personal communication and engagement with the media and the defence of the traditional values of the craft.
Looming over all these is the issue of financial viability, which has emerged with a renewed force in the currently unsettled economic times. In some of the smaller South Asian countries, with weakly institutionalised media industries, financial viability has always been a constant challenge. But even in countries with well established industries and long settled traditions, such as India, developments over the year have unsettled some of the optimism of the last decade of rapid growth in the media. The issue of transparency in ownership and editorial functioning has been brought to the foreground. Accountability and credible modes of regulation still remain relevant.
Physical safety was sharply in focus as a priority in a region which remains one of the most dangerous for journalists to operate in. In Nepal and Sri Lanka, violence against journalists and the media has been a disturbingly recurrent phenomenon over the past twelve months. Prolonged internal warfare, now formally declared at an end in both countries, presented serious challenges for independent journalism while a blanket of impunity for violent acts committed during the war continues and political settlement remains elusive.
Pakistan's status as a frontline state in a global conflict continues to deepen ethnic and sectarian fractures. The past twelve months have seen a further deterioration in the safety environment for journalists. Pakistan has had its impunity rating increasing rapidly and without break for the last four years.
The growth of social media has over the year, added a new dimension to both the opportunities and challenges facing journalism. In India, a cartoonist had his website shut down and then faced arrest on sedition charges, for satirising corruption using depictions of the national flag. In another context, noxious rumours circulating through the internet and the mobile phone network led to a mass panic and the flight of people of a certain ethnicity from some of India's most cosmopolitan cities.
In Bangladesh, young activists campaigning for the trial of war-crimes accused from the country's 1971 war of national liberation, were arrested for posting putatively "atheistic" material on their blogs. In the Maldives, a campaigner for religious tolerance, suffered a near fatal attack, provoked by material he had posted on his blog.
The year saw a growth in instances where national laws were applied to suppress freedom of expression. Legal actions and inconsistent judicial practices contributed to a culture of censorship. In India, heightened concern over terrorism led to a number of journalists being criminally charged and in certain cases, arrested under special security laws.
Governments continue to block access to information, for example when Afghanistan's parliament convened in 2012, the main halls and the press galleries were declared out of bounds for journalists.
At a more general level, journalists face a situation of having to fight for the credibility of their profession as the region witnesses the growing integration of the media with other, unrelated business interests. None of the countries in South Asia has yet worked out a credible means of regulating this intrusion of commercialism into the media.
In the Maldives, the government continues to stand by the ill-advised decision to reserve all official advertisements for a special gazette, denying independent media this important financial sustenance and making them dependent on a variety of commercial and political actors. In Bhutan, an arbitrary change of rules by the electoral authorities, since rescinded, meant that most independent media platforms would be denied political advertising during the ongoing election campaign.
In India, the year under review saw the prospect of employment and livelihood anxieties multiplying for journalists who had taken what seemed like lucrative opportunities in a number of new media platforms promoted by finance, real estate and other companies through the boom years of the last decade.
Journalists still struggle for fair wages and decent working conditions. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal principally, established laws on the protection of living standards are being breached with little consequence. In other countries such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Afghanistan, the struggle is underway for securing protections under the law for the wages and working conditions of the media community.
Countries in South Asia call out for sensible regulatory frameworks that do not impede the public right to freedom of expression and access to information, and safeguard the media from the commercial intrusions that have deeply eroded its credibility.
Like the ten that have preceded, this year's report is part of the continuing effort of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) for sharing experiences and building foundations for united action across frontiers.
The continuing financial support from UNESCO for this annual report is gratefully acknowledged.
Download the report:
ifj_press_freedom_south_asia_2012-13.pdf (2078 KB)