Inside Story

Few bright spots for press freedom in Southeast Asia

Is China’s harsh brand of media control serving as a role model for its neighbours?

Luke Hunt 4 October 2017 1231 words

ASEAN flags on display at the opening ceremony of the 49th Association of South East Asian Nations economic ministers meeting in Pasay City, south of Manila, Philippines, last month. Key ASEAN nations have slipped down the World Press Freedom Index. Rolex Dela Pena/EPA

Globalisation, the digital age and promises of democratic reform once inspired hope that a fresh era of press freedom was about to dawn across Southeast Asia. But two decades after the arrival of the internet those hopes have dwindled amid deteriorating standards.

Underscoring this trend is the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which highlights the situations in Thailand, where the media industry is increasingly muzzled by a military government, and in Cambodia, where defamation laws have been criminalised to silence dissent.

According to Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, “The bad news is that media freedom is in the worst state we have ever seen.” Media freedom “has retreated wherever the authoritarian strongman model has triumphed,” says the organisation. “As we have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms, this 2017 World Press Freedom Index highlights the danger of a tipping point in the state of media freedom.”

Analysts also say that countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, where press freedom had taken root, have also fallen foul of press watchdogs, alongside Myanmar, where an end to more than fifty years of military rule has not resulted in an end to the persecution of journalists. “There are few, if any, press freedom bright spots in Southeast Asia these days,” says Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Some analysts also argue that China’s rise and its sometimes brutal suppression of the media has set an example that is being embraced by its southern neighbours whether democratically elected or not.

“Hopes that the democratic transition in Myanmar would lead to more press freedom have been largely dashed as the elected government and still autonomous military use outdated laws to threaten and jail journalists,” Crispin says.

“It’s not what we expected under an Aung San Suu Kyi–led government and frankly she has been immensely disappointing considering her previous credentials as a pro-democracy icon. The jailing of journalists under Suu Kyi’s watch will leave an indelible stain on her legacy as a democratic reformer.”

He says there are rising concerns that the media curbs that Thailand’s ruling junta initially put in place to secure their coup have been fully consolidated and would be hard to remove even if the country eventually moves back towards elected governance.

“Journalists who have stuck their heads up and criticised military rule have been consistently stomped down, particularly in the broadcast media,” Crispin adds. “It’s a shame considering how far press freedom had progressed in Thailand to see it so easily and quickly reversed.”

According to Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based analyst with Concord Consulting, reporters in the region too often face life-threatening challenges in exposing wrongdoing and abuse of power, arguably the most important roles of the journalist in any country.

Indonesia improved on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, up six places from 2016 to 124 out of 180 countries, the best performance for a Southeast Asian country, followed by the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand rounding out the top five, all far ahead of China, which is ranked a lowly 176. But the index noted growing concerns about the harassment of journalists by the security forces.

Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists recorded at least seventy-eight cases of violence against journalists in 2016, compared with forty-two in 2015 and forty in 2014.

Loveard says most of these cases go unpunished and, most of the time, are not even seriously investigated. “Despite the honourable protections offered by the Press Law, in reality reporting on Indonesia remains a potentially dangerous business. These attacks are just a part of the pressure on the freedom of the media that is often far more subtle.”

He says much of the Indonesian media is guilty of being entrapped by deeply embedded patronage systems across Southeast Asian societies. “Envelope journalism” is rife and too many reporters use their jobs for access to powerful figures and the opportunity to create side deals that are far more lucrative than their official roles.

“There remains a strong culture of immunity for the military and the police in particular and many other powerful figures assume that they are immune from investigation,” he says, “so it requires considerable nerve to probe into the darker regions of Indonesian life.”

Elsewhere in the region, communist-governed Vietnam and Laos remain journalistic backwaters. Each was classified a Black Spot by Reporters Without Borders, while Brunei has raised concerns with the institution of Sharia law. Singapore is still stymied by its inability to cope with any form of criticism, highlighted by prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent threat to sue his own siblings for defamation amid a family squabble.

In Malaysia, the scandal-plagued government of prime minister Najib Razak has faced only muted criticism, benefiting enormously from a press establishment that rarely deviates from the wishes of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation.

Long-time correspondent and former Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, president Karl Wilson has focused on the Philippines for decades and says corruption there is now endemic at all levels and more journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work there than anywhere apart from Iraq and Syria.

“The election of President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug policy has made the job of journalists more difficult,” he says. “The outspoken former mayor of Davao does not like journalists and has made that fact clear on a number of occasions.”

Wilson says international media organisations like to say that 90 per cent of cases in which journalists have been murdered since the fall of Marcos have been solved. Still, that is hardly comforting and heavily mitigated by the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, when fifty-eight people, almost half of them provincial journalists, were murdered, allegedly by the Ampatuan family.

“Since then there have been three presidents who have promised swift action but in the end nothing. Witnesses have been murdered and the case against the Ampatuans has hardly moved,” Wilson says. “It shows a judicial system that is in paralysis and the power of families over the political and judicial system. The whole episode has been virtually forgotten, even by us. The whole episode is a disgrace and a blight on our profession.

“It would have been a totally different story if this had happened in Australia, US or Britain. Why should our colleagues in the Philippines be any different?”

Foreign correspondents are also complaining that they are more often being subjected to the same scrutiny and pressures as local reporters. Foreign journalists have rarely been subjected to those restrictions because they have had little impact on local readers and voters, thus remaining off the radar of the authorities.

But this is changing for journalists who report in English. With its overarching influence across the internet, that language is increasingly responsible for shaping public opinion and influencing political thought.

Loveard says responsibility for dealing with these circumstances lies as much with media proprietors as it does with reporters in the field, regardless of the language and market they serve. “There are, of course, many exceptions but there is still a long way to go, not least in the area of training. What is more constraining is the domination of the media industry by powerful business interests who have zero understanding that ownership does not necessarily mean total control of editorial policies and biases.” ●

This article first appeared in the Correspondent, the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong.