|A member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines protests outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, Philippines, January 17, 2018. © 2018 Reuters|
Ranking in 2002 of 139 countries
Ranking in 2022 of 180 countries
Sources: Reporters Without Borders survey in 2002 and 2022
So why does press freedom, and also democracy, not perform better in economically strong South East Asia?
The Philippines’ ranking has dropped significantly from the 90th in 2002 to the 147th in 2022. Indonesia was once among the best in the world during the rule of President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a progressive Muslim cleric, with the ranking of the 57th in 2002. Now it is the 117th, among the worst.
Political context and the ‘winner take all’ politics prevalent in the region is obviously a factor. Thailand has had a so-called red shirts versus yellow shirts rivalry since 2006, which includes spates of violence. In 2014, Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup after a decade of this rivalry.
In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party, which has ruled the city-state continuously since its bitter separation from Malaysia in 1965, has a regulatory arsenal that allows the government to directly appoint members of the boards and the editors of the leading media outlets. In Malaysia, the status and activities of the nine Malay monarchies are sacrosanct, extremely sensitive subjects. Any form of commentary or reporting deemed critical of the monarchies can result in prosecution and heavy penalties, leading to self-censorship. Political leaders also use onerous laws and regulations to restrict the press.
The Cambodia democratic transition that started in 1992 with the assistance of the United Nations allowed the emergence of a press that flourished until Prime Minister Hun Sen opened a campaign against independent journalism. Cambodia’s ranking has dropped from the 71 in 2002 to the 142 in 2022.
But coups have proven the most disruptive to the development of a free media. Many countries in the region are familiar with coups. The Myanmar military staged a coup in February 2021, resulting in a broad crackdown against anti-coup protesters that amounted to crimes against humanity, along with massive pressure on journalists.
“When the coup happened, Myanmar’s media industry fell into the darkness,” said an anonymous journalist in the opening of the 20-minute documentary, “Walking Through the Darkness" on how Myanmar journalists fled the cities after the coup and were forced to work in ethnic-controlled areas and in exile in Thailand to keep their news reports coming out.
“Whether the military like us or not, journalism has an important role,” said another Myanmar journalist. “Journalists must be able to do their work.”
Quite clearly, some world leaders were far too optimistic about the path forward for Myanmar, and the durability of democratic rule and a free press in that country when faced with a rights abusing military that believed it was destined to always hold power.
But other countries have shown some progress. Malaysia elected a reformist government for a brief two year period and eventually sent their former prime minister Najib Razak to prison for corruption.
South East Asia, for centuries, has always been a region where global rivalries take place, with bigger power asserting their influence, from Islamic rulers in the Middle East to Chinese kingdoms, from European powers to Indian influence, and now pitting the world’s two largest economies: the United States and China. The South China Sea is a now a hotspot for competition between China and the U.S.
But China scares Hong Kong journalists with its repressive actions. It should not be a surprise that the Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of Hong Kong as the 18th best performing country in 2002 is now down to 148th of 180 countries. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, apparently has not learned that over the long term, press freedom is related to economic development and political stability.
The authorities arrested Jimmy Lai last December, symbolizing the drastic decline of media freedom in Hong Kong. in 2020. This is the man who shook my hand at the 1995 conference, sending his regards to my friends back home who were fighting for media freedom in Indonesia.
Legal frameworks are playing an important part in restricting press freedom in the region. In Indonesia, harassment, discrimination, and violence directed at religious minorities are facilitated by a legal architecture, introduced in 2006, that purports to maintain “religious harmony.” In practice, it undermines religious freedom. As in Myanmar, some Indonesian journalists find it difficult to separate their religions and their profession.
In Vietnam, the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. Basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment. The Vietnam state controls all media outlets. The Communist Party demands that they serve as “the voice of party organisations, state organs and social organisations”. The party’s central propaganda department meets weekly in Hanoi to ensure that nothing objectionable is published in media outlets. Party-controlled courts have convicted and sentenced many independent journalists to prison, including Pham Doan Trang, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and others.
Similarly, in communist-controlled Laos, it is absolutely impossible to operate an independent news outlet, and the authorities crack down harshly on groups, organizations or individuals who dare criticize the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, or the government. Migrant workers who criticized the Lao government while they were working in Thailand were subsequently arrested and sentenced to between 15-20 years when they returned to Laos.
In Singapore, two large media groups own all of the major print, radio and broadcast media. MediaCorp is owned by a state investment company. The other, Singapore Press Holdings, is supposed to be privately owned but its directors are appointed by the government. We’re now seeing the New Naratif, an alternative outlet, emerging from Singapore but it is already facing harassment. Meanwhile, The Online Citizen, which played a critical role in independent media in Singapore, has been shut down through harassing lawsuits and regulatory interference, moving their legal entity in Taiwan.
In Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte stripped the ABS-CBN network, the second largest television network in the Philippines, of its franchise in 2020. Luckily, it continues to broadcast online. Multiple harassing legal cases against Maria Ressa and her colleagues at Rappler apparently aim to ultimately shut down the news site. There are no signs so far that things will get better under the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator.
Sociocultural context poses many handicaps. In Malaysia, Malay-language media outlets, which are read by the majority of the population, are sometimes subject to more censorship than their counterparts in English, Chinese or Tamil. In Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, Islam-related issues such as conversion, mandatory hijab, child marriages and apostasy were taboo until recently. However, Indonesian media are increasingly active in covering sexual violence and other crimes in Islamic boarding schools.
Sadly, many Indonesian media outlets also provide too much leeway by failing to regularly report on how local jurisdictions abridge rights. Indonesia has more than 700 regulations and local ordinances, made in the name of Sharia, or Islamic law, that include regulations discriminating against non-Muslim minorities to making mandatory hijab rules.
What Indonesian journalists should use as their guiding reference is the 1945 Constitution, which explicitly guarantees religious freedom and the rights of assembly, association, and expression of opinion. Indonesia, and other countries in the region, should get rid of criminal defamation laws, learning from East Timor.
More countries in South East Asia, should, like Indonesia, ratify core international conventions on human rights. These provide even stronger standards that journalists should follow in pursuing the functional truth in their reporting rather than kowtowing to their countries’ toxic defamation laws.
I understand very well, after working in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Jakarta, that South East Asia is a complicated region that is very diverse linguistically, racially, culturally and historically. It has Muslim-majority countries like Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It also has Buddhist-majority countries like Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. The Philippines and East Timor are predominantly Christian countries. Then there are communist countries like Laos and Vietnam. Unlike Africa and Latin America, this region traditionally has had no colonial languages that these countries could use to communicate with each other.
In December 2021, I was very proud when Maria Ressa got the Novel Peace Prize in Oslo, along with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
These two veteran journalists are not naïve, understanding very well that the prize will not change the situations in their countries. Muratov closed down his Novaya Gazeta newspaper after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ressa is still facing the legal problems from cases that President Duterte and his government manufactured against her.
When receiving the prize, Maria Ressa said in her speech in Oslo that, “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times: climate, coronavirus, now, the battle for truth.”
Ressa called for greater support for independent journalism, for protection of journalists, and to hold accountable those states that target journalists.
In Bahasa Indonesia, we like to say, “Makin bermutu jurnalisme, makin bermutu masyarakat. Makin tidak bermutu jurnalisme, makin tidak bermutu masyarakat.” The more qualified the journalism, the better the quality of the society that it serves. On the other hand, the lower the quality of journalism, the lower the quality of that society.
It is a very clear message indeed. Monarchies, clerics, ethnic leaders, government officials, and the people in South East Asia should understand that message. It’s been two decades, and those messages in support of media freedom are becoming clearer and clearer. South East Asia should promote press freedom and get rid of toxic criminal defamation laws.
It is the only way forward.
Andreas Harsono works for Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. He helped found the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists in 1994, and in 2003 he helped create the Pantau Foundation, a journalist training organization also in Jakarta. He presented this paper at the 34th Deutscher Orientalistentag held at Free University Berlin on September 15, 2022.
It will published under the title "Pioniere der Pressefreiheit. Wie ich vom Reporter zum Medienaktivisten wurde" in the (bi-annual) edition Le Monde diplomatique No 33: "Süd.Ost.Asien - Putsche, Palmen, People Power (South East Asia - Coups, Palmtrees, People Power), edited by Sven Hansen and Dorothee d'Aprile for the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin May 2023.
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