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Put Article 19 into Action in Asia

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During his recent town-hall meeting with Chinese students, President Obama called for the lifting of restrictions on the Internet and Twitter in China.

"The more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable," Obama told the Shanghai audience.

Ironically, China's state-run People's Daily online censored these very comments from its translation and they were later deleted from more than 30 mainland Web sites.

Last year, despite promises of greater openness during the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities maintained tight media and Internet controls, initially barring access to Web sites of Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Sadly, China's government, which uses an ultra-sophisticated firewall to block sites and scrub Google search engine results, is not alone in preventing the free-flow of credible, timely information to its citizens.

As the world marks the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, the principle of Article 19 - the right to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" - still eludes billions in Asia.

Throughout the continent, governments severely restrict free speech and expression - muzzling reporters, jamming international broadcasting signals, and using every means within their power to thwart public debate. After two decades of global progress, press freedom in this and many parts of the world has worsened, according to Freedom House's most recent index. This silencing has its price.

Last year, before Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, the official state press waited a full 24 hours after international broadcasting services had already broken news of its imminent landfall to warn the Burmese people.

Nargis left an estimated 140,000 dead and millions in dire need of humanitarian aid. The survivors had to rely mainly on outside broadcasters such as Radio Free Asia, The Voice of America, and the BBC to find medical care, food, and clean drinking water.

The most extreme case is North Korea, consistently ranked at the bottom of annual press freedom surveys of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.

North Korean authorities jail citizens for attempting to receive outside news. Despite the risk, many North Koreans buy ordinary radios on the black market to listen to these broadcasts, because tuners on officially sanctioned radios are permanently set to the state-run station.

While mobile phone and online technologies have given rise to citizen journalists and "netizens" as blogging has proliferated in Asia, these encouraging developments alone cannot necessarily overcome well-resourced and disciplined strategies of media suppression.

Vietnam, China, and Burma routinely shut down Facebook and social media sites to prevent unsanctioned online discussion among its citizens. All three countries have also gained headlines for heavy-handed responses to their burgeoning blogging communities - with monitoring, tracking, and jailing of bloggers becoming far too commonplace.

China's and Vietnam's governments use their legal systems and tough media laws to crack down on journalists and intimidate their sources. China leads the world in the number of jailed journalists, with at least 26 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This ominous trend in press repression has even crept into Asian countries "in transition" toward a more democratic form of governance. Cambodia's press environment is rapidly deteriorating, with journalists continuing to face physical threats and, in the past year, increasing arbitrary legal intimidation for stories critical of the government or those associated with high-ranking officials.

This summer, after Cambodian courts sentenced opposition newspaper publisher Hang Chakra to one year in prison for defamation, Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Hun Sen's government to end its campaign of "unwarranted legal action" and threats to silence political opposition. However, the calculated legal harassment of publishers and reporters continues unabated.

The biggest victims are the people. They are denied the very means to sort truth from fiction and fact from rumor.

The anniversary of Article 19 is a reminder for all who appreciate the value of a free, independent press to recognize the reality faced by so many in Asia and elsewhere. More than 60 years ago, the world's nations came together with the hope of one day achieving media freedoms for everyone everywhere. It is time for us to recommit ourselves to that universal goal.