Maria Ressa’s arrest on Wednesday was the latest in a string of blatant attacks on the freedom of the press in Southeast Asia. For those that don’t know, Ressa is an award-winning journalist and CEO of the news website the Rappler. Her coverage of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s extra-judicial war on drugs has received recognition far beyond her borders and as such, she is seen as a direct threat to the government.
The latest arrest, made without prior warning, stemmed from a libel case where the complaint was filed five years after the initial story was published. Numerous press alliances, including the Asia News Network, have condemned the arrest as a blatant attack on freedom of the press.
As the Philippines chapter of the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility stated in their release:
“The Duterte government has demonstrated its intolerance of criticism and has in other ways undermined press freedom and freedom of expression, fundamental values that benefit not just journalists and the press but every citizen in a democratic society.”
Duterte’s government has consistently dropped in the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index each year he has been in office. In 2018, the Philippines ranked 133 out of 180 countries in the index – down 6 places from 2017. But this should hardly be surprising for a president that said journalists “are not exempted from assassination.”
And while the situation in the Philippines deserves monitoring, it should be said that it is part of a worrying regional trend. Citing the mal-influence of social media, several countries have used challenges posed by new media as an excuse to enact harsh laws and curb freedom of expressions.
Totalitarian regimes like Vietnam and Thailand have passed cybersecurity laws and use them to prosecute dissidents seen as critical of the government. Bloggers in Vietnam have been arrested, while Thailand’s military junta has used its dictatorial clauses to quell dissent and summon journalists for rendition. Prime Minister and coup-leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is noted for his frequent outburst at journalists.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used fiery rhetoric to court his hardline Hindu base, while turning a blind eye to their continued and growing threat against critical journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, “in the first six months of 2018, at least as many reporters were killed as for the whole of 2017, while hate speech directed toward journalists has increased massively, causing serious concern for their safety.”
A Malaysian Example
In Malaysia, the situation was not dissimilar to its ASEAN neighbors. Under the helm of Prime Minister Najib Razak, the country’s journalists were under threat after the press exposed corruption within the country’s 1MDB wealth fund.
Journalists investigating corruption ties to Najib were under pressure and new laws were drafted to quell the freedom of the press. Only Najib’s shock defeat to Anwar Ibrahim in country’s general election stop the law from becoming enacted. Monitoring groups also note an improving press situation after the defeat of Najib’s ruling coalition.
While there were certainly a myriad of factors that led to Najib’s shock defeat, it was clear that independent and free journalism played a major role.
With four countries, Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, going to polls later this year, it would be a powerful rebuke by the electorate to vote in parties that vow to preserve the freedom of the press. Elections offer a wonderful opportunity to press the reset button in many of these countries where the government sees the media not as an asset but as an enemy.