[Regional] Patterns of press freedom violations in Southeast Asia

[Regional] Patterns of Press Freedom Violations in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian countries have consistently ranked in the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF, Reporters Sans Frontières). Similarly, according to the annual report on Freedom of the Press by Freedom House, eight of the 11 countries are classified as “not free.”

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In 2017, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) recorded 128 incidents of threats to and attacks against media and journalists in the region.

The aggregate number may not have captured all incidents of press freedom violations given the limitations of SEAPA’s monitoring and reporting process. [See Note on Methodology below] But it does provide another set of indicators on the worrying state of press freedom in the region. For this report, the cases recorded are limited to journalists in the mainstream (recognized) media.

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The data and information reflect the country analyses and the observations of other press freedom indices. Year 2017 showed that media and journalists in the region were vulnerable and at risk for simply doing their jobs. The practice of the profession was put under pressure through court demands and proceedings, as well as content restrictions. With the first quarter of this year done, the press freedom situation has looked more dire as violations keep piling up.

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Given that press freedom is constitutionally protected and its long history of journalist activism, the case of the Philippines is paradoxical. It has the most number of violations, which include the continuing killing of journalists, threats and harassments.

 Twenty four (24) of the 42 incidents recorded are cases of intimidation, including verbal and death threats both online and offline. President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials have been inciting violence against media and journalists for their “critical” coverage of the administration over the past year. The number reflects the recent trend of online harassment by supporters of the President against journalists, who report on the “war on drugs” and other policy pronouncements and actions of the administration.

 Myanmar stands out because of the number of legal actions against journalists. In the 11 out of 19 incidents, defamation and other criminal charges under the Penal Code, Telecommunications Law, Unlawful Associations Act, Official Secrets Act, and curiously, the Aircraft Law were filed against journalists. Even the News Media Law (2014), which was supposedly crafted to recognize the role of media in society and protect the rights of journalists, has been used to restrict press freedom.

 In two cases, seven media workers were placed under remand. Six cases involved alleged defamation of public officials and personalities including the military and police that led to arrests and imprisonment.

Censorship incidents are highest in Thailand, especially on reports and commentary that discuss its social and political situation. The seven cases involved suspensions and coverage bans of media organizations and journalists. 

There were five incidents of prosecution in Thailand. There were two cases filed under defamation and one under sedition. The other two cases also involved temporary detention.

For other countries, it must be noted that the low numbers do not reflect positive situations of the press. On the contrary, for the countries concerned except Timor-Leste, SEAPA views these low numbers as an indication of a compliant media under existing repressive political and legal environments. It reflects entrenched systems of self-censorship in the media in these countries — as in the case of Singapore and Vietnam, which recorded one and two incidents respectively.

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State as perpetrator

The state of free expression and press freedom in Southeast Asia is described last year as “very, very grim” by Prof. David Kaye, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. He shared his observations on regional and global trends related to online and offline restrictions of these rights in a public lecture at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok on 6 October 2017.

The UN expert enumerated four trends: crackdown on government criticism, abuse of hate speech, criminalization of attacks on religious belief, and prosecution of false information.

“We live in a world right now that I think is facing a global assault on freedom of expression and is largely driven by states,” said Kaye.

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State actors are involved in 86 of the 128 incidents. Heads of state, local government officials, police, military, information and communications-related agencies led the filing of charges or other actions disapproving critical news and opinion.

“We see this happening around the world, this essentially criminalization of the criticism of government actors. It comes in the form of laws against insult, which might apply to government officials, might apply to government agencies … but it’s something that we see globally, a real crackdown on government criticism,” explained Kaye.

In most of these cases, the media and journalists were reporting on or discussing issues related to structures and processes that ensure transparency, accountability, participation, inclusiveness in government and the rule of law.

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Politics, campaigns and elections, graft and corruption were some of the topics covered by the media and journalists under the topic of “governance.” Public officials viewed critical reporting as “anti-government,” “unfair,” “biased,” or is damaging to their reputation. Alleged ownership or perceived intervention of “foreign” agents have also led to media condemnation and restrictions.

In short, the actions of the states in the region attack the very essence of the role of the press to hold governments to account.

The “Trump effect” — which has been used as a convenient excuse to tag unfavorable reporting as “fake news,” false information, and/or lies — has been in full swing. Southeast Asian heads of state have favored the attitude of United States President Donald Trump against the media to justify their own verbal attacks and legal threats against media organizations and journalists. However, their antagonism towards independent journalism existed long before Trump.

SEAPA shares the concern of the special rapporteur: “Quite a number of people in prison and subject to prosecution for essentially sharing news that is legitimate. So it is abused in order again to shutdown government criticism, to shutdown information that governments simply don’t like and this is a problem that I think we’re seeing in all corners of the world today.”

States have used the misinformation and disinformation, sometimes they themselves are the purveyors, to undermine trust in and credibility of legitimate news sources. Not only does this make it difficult for citizens to distinguish fact from fiction, but it also interferes with their right to access information.

News and commentaries related to religion, ideology, national security remain security risks. Taboos — as criticizing the monarchy, using humor, irony, or satire, discussing gender, race, ethnicity, and communism — continue to restrict expression. Despite their impact in the everyday lives of the public, media and journalists become vulnerable to crackdown when they dare report or comment on these issues.

SEAPA’s Monitoring Methodology

SEAPA has developed a database on monitoring and reporting the threats to and/or attacks against free expression and/or press freedom in the region. Given the political and social context of Southeast Asia, this project aims to bring awareness to the issues that affect the practice of journalism and media use. It supports and strengthens the impact of SEAPA’s programs and advocacies in the promotion and protection of these fundamental human rights.

SEAPA has been working towards a free and safe environment for journalists and media users in Southeast Asia as its major organizational goals. Its Alerts Program was established in 2003 to draw attention to this cause.

The data and information presented here are based on the monitoring by the SEAPA secretariat and reports from members, which are 12 organizations based in seven countries in the region.

The SEAPA secretariat has made every effort to ensure that the recorded incidents are accurate, verified, and up to date. As research and case monitoring are in progress, the data and information are subject to change.

The SEAPA secretariat follows this process:

  1. Monitoring of (mostly English) news reports and commentaries on media-related events and issues using Google Alerts and News;
  2. Collecting incidents and cases for research and verification;
  3. Compiling the relevant news reports and commentaries into the Weekly Media Roundup as a summary of key incidents during the period;
  4. Categorizing the incidents and cases into countries; types of violations, media, gender; perpetrator; topics of news coverage.
  5. Analyzing patterns, trends, and relationships.

For types of violations, SEAPA groups similar incidents into:

  • Regulation – media interference through rules, policy, or laws; registration or licensing; draft bills; travel ban; (management) firing; 
  • Censorship – closure of outlet, denial of access, coverage ban, suspension or revocation of media license, prohibition of specific content, confiscation of publications, deportation, self-censorship; 
  • Prosecution – arrest, including warrants; detention, including under remand; court summons or subpoena; legal action (civil or criminal charges, or under military courts);
  • Intimidation – verbal, legal, or death threats; seizure or intentional damage of equipment or assets; invasive questioning or search; administrative demand letters; surveillance; buyout; online attacks, including trolling and hate speech; exile;
  • Assault – physical attacks; shooting; 
  • Killing – murder; homicide.

Using these categories enables SEAPA to develop a regional framework for members, partner organizations, and individuals to submit cases to the database. The challenge is to have a common and simple format that would be applicable to specific country contexts. This would help address SEAPA’s limitation with regard to language barriers (mainly gathering data and information in English) and skills/capacity (to monitor and report). Also, a more organized approach and system should facilitate participation and consultation among stakeholders for response, action, and advocacy.

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