Press Freedom: The Slide Backwards
Across 11 Nations of Southeast Asia

POLITICAL FREEDOM and civil liberties are in a downward spiral globally. Democracy is not only in retreat, but is under assault in Southeast Asia.

State-sponsored threats and attacks, internet being weaponized with toxic discourse and false narratives, hate speech and identity politics have favored patrons, caused deep divisions, and targeted vulnerable sectors.

In 2018, most of the countries in the region are classified as either “partly” or “not free” by Freedom House. The U.S.-based non-profit organization follows a methodology using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to measure the state of countries and territories and freedoms enjoyed by individuals.

Southeast Asia has consistently ranked in the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF, Reporters Without Borders). The RSF Index evaluates media and legal environment, independence, and pluralism. In the latest report, six of the 11 countries declined in rankings. Eight were classified in the “difficult” situation, and two as “very serious.”

Media for democracy

Given this context, designating one day every year – May 3 – as World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) becomes even more relevant. The date serves as an occasion “to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession”.

The theme of the 26th WPFD “concerns the current challenges faced by the media in times of elections and the growing prevalence of disinformation, along with the media’s potential in supporting democracy, peace and reconciliation”.

The complete collapse of Cambodia’s independent media is a demonstration of how governments have turned hostile towards the media and actively undermined their role.

The highly restricted code of conduct for and coverage of the media and journalists in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand impede the duty of the press to deliver news and information crucial for public participation, especially during campaigns and elections.

But media initiatives in national and regional levels that encourage debates, fact-checking, and collaboration may help provide counter-narratives, increase credibility, and push back against disruptions.

Undeterred by assaults on human rights and the rule of law, the WPFD campaign to “Defend Journalism” acts as a reminder that press freedom facilitates transparency and accountability — key values in democratic societies.

Controlling the narrative

Southeast Asian leaders want, if not already have, the monopoly on information. Differences in opinions and criticizing the government or public officials lead to sanctions and charges against media outlets, journalists, activists, and citizens — at worst, they are jailed or killed. Self-censorship has been the practice for media and journalists in countries under restricted regimes.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Myanmar are the recipients of this year’s UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize for their “courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression”. The Myanmar Supreme Court recently upheld their September 2018 conviction for violating the Official Secrets Act. The two reporters have been in prison since 12 December 2017. At the time of their arrest, they were working on as story on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

Independent and alternative news organizations in the Philippines are being directly targeted by the Duterte administration and supporters for scrutinizing government policies and reporting anomalies. Online news platform Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa have eight active criminal court cases out of a total 11, including administrative complaints. They have also been subjected to a coverage ban, online abuse, and other intimidation tactics.

Criminalizing speech

Governments have at their disposal laws and regulations that control free expression. Legitimate discussions and conversations about race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are branded as taboo.

Defamation remains to be a criminal offence in the region. Institutions such as the military and the monarchy are shielded from insults. Thailand has one of the strictest and harshest lèse majesté – Section 112 of the Penal Code – laws in the world. Cambodia adopted a similar law last year. Malaysia has considered changes to the Sedition Act 1948 to ensure the protection of the country’s rulers.

This control has been expanding. Several countries are amending legislation and promoting new laws that would supposedly act as a silver bullet for complex issues like disinformation and hate speech. Often caught in the crossfire, however, are freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Despite commitments to abolish oppressive laws, Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan government has yet to deliver on its campaign and election promises. The Dewan Negara (the Senate of Parliament) rejected the bill to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act 2018.

Singapore is keen to pass the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) amid massive opposition, warnings of misuse and abuse by journalists, civil-society representatives, and citizens.

Other countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia have pending and are pushing to pass bills similar to POFMA.

According to Google and Temasek, Southeast Asia is the “world’s fastest growing internet region (~14% 5-year CAGR) with an existing Internet user base of 260m growing to ~480m users by 2020 (~3.8m / month).”

Across the region, cyber troops or armies either have been or are being set up by governments to monitor the Internet, social media, and messaging platforms for “false information”.

Not surprisingly, concerns about mass surveillance, online censorship, cyberattacks, and data breach have increased dramatically in the region. As much as the Internet and social media platforms are used for communication and to access information, technology has been used as a tool to crackdown on and silence voices of dissent.

Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have passed cybersecurity laws. But definitions of threats to national security have been broad and unclear. Other provisions are also open to interpretation giving cause for worry that implementation would be arbitrary or selective.

Other struggles

As violations of press freedom continue, journalist safety remains a priority.

In particular, UNESCO has drawn attention to the “numerous ways women journalists can be placed in vulnerable settings – in the workplace, the field and online – leaving them open to harassment, intimidation, and violence”.

Apart from regular risks, women journalists face discrimination in the workplace, rape threats, and misogynistic comments.

More and more, however, women journalists are getting comfortable sharing their challenges and stories. The conversation has started on creating and encouraging the leadership roles of women journalists in newsrooms.

But the bad news are still outnumbering the good. For instance, a number of news outlets in the region have been suspended or closed down; personnel who were terminated have raised the need for the media to address ownership and sustainability.

In general, journalists across the region are paid too little and do not have benefits nor security of tenure. Weak and lack of union systems have been cited as urgent matters for journalist groups and press councils to resolve.

In Indonesia, media workers have pushed for the increase of starting salaries. Media outlets, like in Myanmar and Singapore, are exploring innovative ways to survive and be competitive in the digital age. Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), May 2019