Asia is home to the full range of media organizational forms and formats. Notably, the world’s most read newspapers are found in Asia, including Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, which has a print circulation of 9.7 million, and Asahi Shimbun, which has a print circulation of 7.5 million. (For comparison, The New York Times has a print circulation of 480,000.) It is also home to the world’s most read English-language newspaper: The Times of India. Similarly, China-based Xinhua is today regarded as the largest international news agency in the world.
However, although it boasts a number of highly consumed journalistic products, the majority of Asian countries lack the professional norms and institutions necessary to support a strong and resilient media ecology. In particular, a combination of cultural, social, and political factors makes it difficult to practice journalism in most of the region. Moreover, many countries in Asia suffer from what the United Nations calls ‘severe multidimensional poverty,’ which in turn creates serious inequities in who has access to high-quality journalism as well as who gets covered in mainstream journalism.
Generally speaking, Asian countries offer journalists inhospitable working environments that make it difficult for them to provide robust journalism and commentary on the powerful. According to Freedom House, only Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Taiwan could be said to enjoy a ‘free’ press as of 2017. Similarly, four of the three bottom-ranked countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index were Asian countries (China, North Korea, and Turkmenistan).
The constraints on journalism in Asia are applied by a wide range of actors using diverse methods. While brutal and overt forms of repression, such as jailing journalists and banning news outlets, certainly do occur in places like Myanmar and North Korea, many states opt for more subtle forms of control that draw less attention but are equally effective. For example, China and Singapore have granted journalists and citizens considerable freedom to produce and access journalism, but only about topics that do not significantly threaten the dominance of their ruling parties. Put another way, such journalists are generally free to produce business and lifestyle stories, and they may even engage in investigations of local corruption, but they are frequently barred from reporting critically about the Chinese leadership or on sensitive topics like the Uyghur genocide.
Journalists in most Asian countries must also contend with national security and state secrets laws that governments have made more sweeping under the guise of preventing terrorism. Such laws have been repeatedly applied to jail journalists and create a climate of self-censorship. Additionally, Asian countries will sometimes use tax laws to harass independent media. For example, the 24-year-old Cambodia Daily was forced to close down in 2017 after the Cambodian government issued a dubious bill for back taxes. Similarly, under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, authorities in the Philippines used dubious claims to investigate the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer for alleged tax evasion, and the intense pressure led to the newspaper’s eventual sale to a pro-government tycoon.
Governments in Asian countries have also applied economic pressure to punish critical journalism. One widespread tactic is to withhold spending on advertisements in media that are out of favor, resulting in a major loss of revenue in markets where the public sector is a major advertiser. For example, the India-based Anandabazar Patrika lost all state government advertising revenue after they opposed a powerful chief minister’s reelection bid. In Indonesia, local governments and politicians are the main source of advertising revenue for many journalistic outlets, and it is customary for those organizations to align their editorial positions with the ruling parties.
Additionally, it is common for public television and radio stations in Asian countries to be directly controlled by political leaders who instrumentalize them as propaganda tools. Even when there is private ownership, the licensing (or regulation) of broadcasters in many Asian countries is controlled by political appointees rather than independent public bodies, which results in those lucrative licenses being given to pro-government organizations. Similarly, in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, newspapers require an annual publishing license, which can be denied or revoked at the government’s discretion, with no reason given. As such, in many Asian countries, there is little obvious friction between major media outlets and the government.
Notably, many Asian governments are less sensitive about English-language media that cater to cosmopolitan urbanites and expatriates than they are about media in the local language. Thus, laws are often selectively applied, and local organizations end up being more tightly supervised because of their influence among the country’s broader population.
In addition to legal threats from the government and interference from pro-government owners, journalists in many Asian countries are also subject to threats from citizens. Long before intolerant populism emerged as a major concern in the West with the rise of far-right politicians in Europe and the election of Donald Trump, multiple Asian countries were experiencing waves of anti-journalist sentiment. For example, in the Philippines, journalists investigating human rights abuses by President Rodrigo Duterte faced repeated threats of violence from his enraged supporters. In Indonesia, the country’s largest newspaper, Kompas, routinely receives open threats from hardline Muslim groups. In China, nationalist sentiment can sometimes be an even greater obstacle to balanced coverage of Japan than Chinese government control. Notably, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index, which measures the per capita number of unsolved murders of journalists, has placed the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India among its dozen worst offenders in recent years.
While there is considerable variation in the level of journalistic professionalism within Asia, and in the values and norms that journalists in different Asian countries adhere to most, the region is generally distinct from places like the United States and Europe. In particular, Asian journalists are more likely to favor social responsibility and social stability over what they sometimes critique as an amoral set of newsworthiness values in the West. Asian journalists are also more likely to believe they play a role in nation-building and economic development, which tends to make them take a less adversarial stance toward the ruling party. Scholars have argued that this is not a simple, culture-bound act of deference or meekness. Instead, it reflects an attitude that favors more paternalistic rule, which should ideally result from competitive elections.
Moreover, many Asian journalists struggle economically. Low wages across the continent means that the practice of ‘envelope journalism’ is widespread, wherein bribes and gifts are offered to journalists in return for favorable coverage of political and business leaders. Moreover, some investigative journalists are motivated by the chance to uncover blackmail, which they can then use to extract ‘hush money’ from wealthy individuals. As such, adversarial and watchdog forms of journalism are not only legally problematic but also economically disincentivized.
While traditional media throughout Asia have suffered declines in advertising revenue (like the rest of the world), the magnitude of that decline (and of declining subscriptions) has not been nearly as high. Moreover, some of those declines have been offset by the tremendous growth of many Asian economies, which has been reflected in booming media industries. As such, traditional media — and print journalism in particular — remain viable and are still major components of many Asian media ecosystems.
With the increasing development of digital infrastructures and rapid media growth, alternative online media have also emerged in some Asian countries. Such outlets have been funded in part by international media development foundations. However, rising standards of living and increasing amounts of disposable income have also offered some alternative media outlets a sustainable economic pathway. Examples of this include Malaysia’s Malaysiakini, an online-only independent news outlet, and the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio and television network founded by Myanmar exiles.
Notably, some Asian journalistic outlets have begun vying for a global audience through the use of different media technologies. Several countries now have state-funded external broadcasting services that serve public diplomacy interests (even as they are granted some measure of journalistic autonomy to maintain their credibility). For example, Japan’s NHK now offers an English-language television channel and a radio service that broadcasts in 18 languages. Radio Taiwan International broadcasts its radio programs in 13 languages. Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia reaches 28 countries and territories in the region through satellite distribution.
The biggest Asian player on the international stage today is China, though. Its suite of global media includes China Global Television Network, which offers news and documentary television channels in six languages and is available worldwide; the English-language China Daily, which prints 600,000 copies and is available in some major cities outside China; and Xinhua, which is now the world’s largest news agency by some measures. Chinese media companies have also been at the forefront of using artificial intelligence and automation in journalism to create personalized news products that even feature computer-generated news anchors.
Asian countries generally offer journalists inhospitable working environments that make it difficult for them to provide public-service journalism and commentary on the powerful. These restrictions are sometimes enforced through legal instruments but also via economic maneuvering.
Violence against journalists is also prevalent in some Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia. That violence is sometimes enacted with impunity by highly partisan citizens.
Traditional media in many parts of Asia have not been affected as deeply by changing media consumption patterns and declines in advertising revenue. Moreover, some of those outlets have begun to vie for global audiences.