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Current affairs, Politics

Asian press freedom under threat

Some common themes and little optimism as press freedom takes a back seat in Asia.

Written by

Updated: April 21, 2019

The media advocacy group, Reporters without Borders—also known by its international name Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF—released its 2019 World Press Freedom Index on Thursday. The report tells a bleak story of the future of news ecosystems around the world, and warns of increasing danger for the men and women who have made reporting the news their jobs.

The index’s assessment of Asia-Pacific’s press freedom describes an atmosphere of increasing cyber harassment, physical danger and intimidation for reporters—factors that unsurprisingly have led to growing levels self-censorship across the region.

A look at a the state of press freedom in a few countries around the region reveals some recurring patterns: Legal systems have been increasingly wielded as weapons by governments to silence media outlets and individual reporters, as well as heightened levels of harassment, both in the field, and online.

Legal Barriers to Free Press

Across the Asia-Pacific region, governments have been making increasing use of laws—both old and new—to cultivate an atmosphere of fear among journalists and to erect barriers to creating meaningful, hard-hitting journalism.

In Myanmar (down one position to 138th), the government struck a blow to the country’s press freedom in 2018 by jailing Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under seven-year sentences for trying to investigate a massacre of Rohingya muslim minority that had allegedly been carried by state security forces. RSF categorizes the repose from Aung San Suu Kyi, whose rise to leadership of the country in 2012 was once hailed with optimism, as a “shocking betrayal.”

The Reuters reporters were charged under the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law, but other pieces of legislation have also been used to stifle journalism. Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, as well as Article 505(b) of the country’s penal code have also been weaponized. The former has been used to prosecute dozens of reporters, and the latter was used to arrest three Eleven Media journalists in late 2018.

In Vietnam (down one position to 176th), which the RSF report pairs with China (down one position to 177th) and describes as a journalistic “black hole,” much of the unvarnished information pertaining to the state, the economy, and the environment often come from citizen journalists and activist bloggers. Those individuals are facing increased state intimidation and judicial scrutiny. At least 30 journalists and bloggers are behind bars.

New cybersecurity legislation there makes online dissent an even riskier endeavor.

In Nepal (remaining at 106th), the government has been aggressively pursuing journalists under both new and longstanding legislation. One such law, the Electronic Transaction Act for instance was originally written to regulate bank transactions and discourage cybercrime, but has been used—thanks to vague wording— against digital journalism and even social media posts deemed “improper” by the government.

In Bangladesh (down four positions to 150th) photojournalist Shahidul Alam was held for more than 100 days on completely spurious grounds following massive student protests, in an example of how the judicial system is used to silence reporters who cover topics the government deems unflattering.

The Philippines (down one position to 134th) has become an increasingly hostile judicial environment for journalists. The most high-profile case relates to Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, whose ongoing legal troubles will stand as a test of the country’s judicial independence.

Violence, both threatened and realized

Many of these countries, the Philippines included, have also seen deterioration in terms of physical and online safety journalists. The RSF index points out that three journalists in the Philippines were slain in 2019, possibly at the hands of private agents working for local politicians. And online harassment is frequently harnessed to discourage the work of journalists, including Ressa, who has become the target of President Rodrigo Duterte’s notorious troll army.

In India (down 2 positions to 140th), violence against journalists has taken place in the past with relative impunity. RSF counts six Indian journalists who were killed in 2018 for doing their jobs. And the group writes in the index that physical and online attacks against journalists have been on the rise as the country built up to, and entered this year’s national election cycle, part of a worrying trend in the country that increasingly criminalizes public dissent.

Small glimmers of optimism

The RSF highlights at least one country in Asia where optimism is warranted—Malaysia, which leaped ahead 22 spots to come in at 123rd on this year’s list. The surprising defeat of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling party breathed some fresh air into the country’s media landscape. Outlets and journalists that had previously been blacklisted have been able to resume their crucial work.

The takeaway lesson here, the index writes, is of the power of political change to reinvigorate press freedom, decrease levels of self-censorship, and give a country’s citizens access to more representative viewpoints—both in support, and in critique of the ruling coalition.

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About the Author: ANN’s Board representative Mr Zhou Li, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of China Daily Asia Pacific based in Hong Kong, was recently appointed Deputy Editor-in-Chief of China Daily Group

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