A Clarion to Call to Action: Protect Press Freedom

2018 was witness to unrelenting attacks against the press; time to step up our game and push back

In the year just past, a host of challenges hounded the press across the region amid the rise of authoritarian regimes that bristled at the slightest sign of dissent, and an information (dis)order, AKA ‘fake news’, that fanned the flames of polarization and ethnonationalism, and amplified hate speech and all manner of discord and intolerance, resulting in deeply divided societies.

In much of the region intrepid media outlets and journalists, and not so plucky ones that were no less mindful of their role, struggled to keep the public well informed of the state of affairs in government. Independent voices, including those of civil rights advocates and other concerned sectors of society, were in the main muzzled by restrictive laws and regulations. Threats of arrest and prosecution hung over them like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

The Philippines – once a bastion of thriving democracy in the region – is a glaring example, and this became all too evident when online news website Rappler’s registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission was revoked – a foreboding of worse things to come. Soon after, the online media outlet’s reporter covering the chief executive, President Rodrigo Duterte, was barred from Malacañan Palace, and its CEO Maria Ressa slapped with tax evasion charges. Intimidation and violence against the press, with killings on the rise, became a hallmark of the Duterte administration.

Indonesia’s successful political transition, dubbed the Reformasi, since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, has not prevented the country from witnessing ominous signs that democracy is losing ground – with severe repercussions for the press – and a resurgence of one of the vestiges of a foregone era that many thoughts had been tossed in the dustbin of history – intimidation, threats, and violence against the media, particularly in the Indonesian province of West Papua, where freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of information are severely limited. On a slightly positive note, violence against journalists seems on a decline – with 34 recorded as of November 2018, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), compared to 66 in 2017 and 81in 2016. At least 7 out of an average of 40 to 50 journalist killings in the last 10 years remain unresolved to date, said AJI.

Across the country concentration of media ownership has raised concerns around the diversity of viewpoints and self-censorship, according to Freedom House. An internet censorship system instituted by the government has spurred concerns on arbitrary blocking and transparency about the method of and basis for blocking.

Early last year, the House of Representatives passed a controversial amendment to the 2014 Legislative Institutions Law, otherwise known as MD3 that effectively bans criticism of public officials. This means the media could suffer adverse consequences if their reports are found violative of the amended law.

All of this serves as a deeply concerning backdrop to the looming elections in April this year, where independent and unfettered media coverage should bring to light important public interest issues that in turn should spur a healthy public debate and guide the voters in choosing the right candidates.

Talk about elections.

Despite the widely acknowledged role of a free and independent media in society, most, if not all, governments across the region continue to perceive the former as obstacles to the exercise of their power. This is a reality that, it has been observed, takes a turn for the worse when elections are in the offing.

In Singapore, the government moves to tighten the noose around the media raised the prospect of early elections, in 2019, two years ahead of schedule, in 2021. These included the planned passage of legislation to combat ‘online falsehoods’. A parliamentary select 10-member committee was set up to look into the impact of the so-called ‘fake news’ in the country preparatory to the proposed law’s enactment. Civil rights advocates raised the alarm posthaste, calling attention to its potential harm to press freedom and free expression.

The committee said disinformation, or what it called ‘fake news’, intensifies during election campaigns. Among its recommendations had to do with “quality journalism,” citing the need for the media to boost their skills in “digital fact-checking.”

Media continue to bear the brunt of criminal defamation in the city-state. In late November The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu was charged with defamation based on the news site’s published story deemed critical of Singapore’s public officials. Not long after, blogger Leong Sze Hian was similarly slapped with defamation, this time by no less than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article he shared on Facebook linking the latter to a state fund scandal in Malaysia.

Like Singapore, Thailand seems to be bracing itself for the prospects of elections this year and the concomitant heightened crackdown on the media. Despite the ruling junta’s promise to restore democracy to the country after successfully staging a coup in 2014, there’s little reason to believe this will ever happen – at the rate activists and independent journalists have been slapped with criminal charges such as sedition and computer-related crimes for views and content deemed inimical to the state – and the junta has enforced censorship.

A media reform plan, as part of national reforms under the ruling military junta, included a media reform law that was intended for passage late last year. Such legislation will seek, among others, to raise the ethical and professional practices of the media. Concerned media groups and other sectors view this as part of a bigger plan to further control the press and freedom of information, particularly in the lead-up to the election. The same draft law was endorsed by the Cabinet on December 18, leaving little doubt about its eventual passage, perhaps sooner rather than later.

In the past four years the junta, otherwise known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has targeted perceived critics and journalists, many of whom have been summoned to military barracks for “attitude adjustments.”

Just before the year ended, the NCPO lifted the ban on public assemblies but kept a lid on media freedom and free expression, with oppressive laws still firmly in place to maintain the status quo. NCPO Announcement 97/2014 prohibits publication of information that “threatens national security or instigates conflict or disorder.” NCPO Order No. 3/2015 authorizes military officials to ban media outlets if their content “instigates public fear or causes misunderstanding through distortion, which could affect national security or lead to social disorder.”

Pending passage into law is a cybersecurity bill that is purported to protect national security and forestall cybercrime. Among others, it will prohibit the publication of sensitive material, and allow data interception and website blocking. Like other laws, it threatens media freedom.

In Myanmar, who could forget the fate that befell Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in September 2018? The two embattled reporters were convicted and sentenced to a seven-year prison term on charges of illegal possession of official documents, in violation of the Official Secrets Act, after reporting on military atrocities against the Rohingya in the Rakhine state. State counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended the verdict, saying it “had nothing to do with freedom of expression.”

The judgment illustrates the precarious state of press freedom in a country that had raised hopes for a resurgent democracy following the landmark election in 2015 that brought to power its first civilian president in 50 years. Media coverage, especially in conflict areas such as Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states, has greatly imperilled the lives of journalists, with the government doing very little, if anything, to stave off media attacks.

Compounding this problem was the massive spread of hate speech online such that “efforts to expunge it from social media platforms in Myanmar are hampered by the [sheer] volume of traffic, multiple languages, and a shortage of moderators and fact checkers.”

Across the region, Malaysia seemed the singular bright spot immediately following its unprecedented election in May 2018.  Promised reforms, including repeal of restrictive laws and regulations, were expected to reverse the tide of systematic restrictions of freedom of expression and access to information imposed by the previous government. Yet, signals for reform, including media regulations, from the new government have been mixed, generating anxiety among media groups and civil liberties advocates.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has declared that the Official Secrets Act would stay in an apparent turnabout on the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto, in particular, Promise 14, to revise the controversial law and enact a Freedom of Information legislation.

In a joint statement released soon after the historic vote, a group of civil society organizations, including local and international ones such as Article 19, urged the then newly minted government to give priority to the country’s legislative framework to ensure free expression and access to information for all, and those meaningful and inclusive consultations be made with civil society, notably the media and human rights defenders. A local NGO, called Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), has decried the government’s “failure to engage with civil society and build public discourse prior to the announcement” of specific policy plans.

Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos – known for their highly restricted media – remain cause for concern amid concerted efforts to muzzle independent voices and intensify the ongoing crackdown on dissent.

In June last year, Vietnam passed a cybersecurity law that’s akin to China’s heavy-handed censorship of the Internet, amid widespread objections including from the global community. The law requires online platforms such as Google and Facebook to set up local offices and store data locally. An equally tough, if not tougher, cybersecurity legislation is expected in Cambodia this year. As is known to all, Laos has one of the most restricted media environments in the world, ranking near the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index.

Across the region, hopes are dim that winds of change – for media reporting and free expression – will blow in Southeast Asia’s direction this year. If anything, things may only get worse, because the indicators are all too evident and more ominous signs are writ large on the wall — what with other potentially harsh laws waiting in the pipeline and authoritarian states refusing to back down in the face of strong regional and global backlash against the passage and enforcement of existing repressive legislation, and increasing use of state-sponsored cyber armies that aid certain political agenda while bringing to the fore false or manipulative narratives that skew public discourse in favour of the state.

Still and all, there is no reason to throw in the towel. The media and civil society alike, alongside the rest of society, must work hand in hand to resist all efforts to dismantle press freedom and the public’s right to know and express themselves freely, online and offline, while refusing to be cowed into silence. Out of these challenges comes a clarion call to step up our game and protect these freedoms – together.

In solidarity, we stand.

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