Hoang My Uyen hugs her daughter after an attack at a protest demanding accountability for the fish kill among the coastline in Central Vietnam.

[Regional] The Devastating Decline of Free Expression and Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

In all, previous trends of state restrictions and violence committed on the press and against acts of political, religious and other forms of speech, especially online, remain firmly in place in 2016.

The four countries which have been regarded as the freer press environments in the region—Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Timor Leste—suffered serious setbacks, mainly to reinforce preexisting issues. Indonesia, as recorded by the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI), saw an unprecedented 78 violent attacks against journalists in 2016. The number is at least one-third more than previous levels of violence of between 40 to 45 cases in the past five years, and also the highest since AJI began recording in 2006. The intensified situation reflects entrenched patterns of preventing or retaliating against journalistic coverage of local events. As in previous years, security forces – both soldiers and police – are mostly responsible for attacks against members of the media.

In the Philippines, a new form of threat against the media emerged after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the 16th President of the country. Duterte had been hostile to members of the media even in his campaign for the highest office, saying for instance that corrupt members of the media “deserved to die”. Antagonism with critical members of the press reemerges from time to time when journalists asked him or report about his wealth, his health and especially human rights issues, particularly those related to the killings under the brutal drug war which has seen about 7,000 killed since he took office in July 2016. Duterte’s hostility is amplified in social media, through his undiminished online support machinery that is credited with carrying him to election victory in May 2016. Supporters troll journalists and other perceived opponents of the president by using vulgar, misogynistic and violent threats.

Defamation charges filed in April 2016 by the Prime Minister of Timor Leste against two journalists, meanwhile, loom large over the small country’s media community. Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo’s  stubborn insistence to pursue a criminal defamation case against Timor Post reporter Raymundo Oki and editor Lourenco Martins serve as a dire warning to the media leading to self-censorship when reporting on government-related corruption.

For the third year since the May 2014 coup d’etat, restrictions remain the norm in Thailand on the media and online expression. The unprecedented number of prosecutions related to lese majeste and criticism of the junta continue to pile up, as does direct interventions to the media including suspensions of news anchors and TV programs. In 2016, however, these measures looked to  become permanent with a number of policy proposals being lined up to increase government control in the Thai media. Beginning with reduced constitutional guarantees on press freedom and freedom of expression, the military junta is setting up more restrictions over cyberspace with the amendments of the Computer-related Crimes Act, a media bill that features a strong state role in regulation, more powers for the broadcasting commission, and stricter cyber security measures.

Elsewhere in the region, long standing restrictions and restrictive conditions hold sway over the media. For example, in Myanmar, despite the long-awaited landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2015, the entrenched media-hostile culture of government, and particularly the military, has effectively set the limits for the newly-freed press community since reforms began in 2011. This year, most prominent source of pressure for the media and online expression are lawsuits under the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act’s article 66d on online defamation. Cases against journalists, including some filed by NLD officials, comprise some 15% of the total filed under this law (eight out of 54 cases as of April 2017), mostly since April 2015 when the new government took power. The rest of the cases arise out of Facebook comments usually against public officials, including the military.

In Cambodia, however, control of the media is maintained by the lack of clarity in legislation both for news and online users. The government maintains control of the press by politically suportive media owners and direct intimidation. The latter is illustrated by a string of unresolved killings of journalists, and direct threats to the media by government officials, including from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The new media laws in Laos and Vietnam—which are amendments of their 2008 and 1999 press laws, respectively—did not herald much change even with revised legal frameworks that remain firmly under the grip of the state. While Vietnam’s amended law dropped a 1999 clause describing the media as the mouthpiece of the state, the new Laos law retained the role. Vietnam’s new law however introduced “nine new provisions” lauded by state media, including among others an explicit recognition of the right to freedom of expression, allowing more entities to establish press agencies, and protection of sources. Compared with other countries with freer press environments, these freedoms outlined are still below par, and are unlikely to usher in a new era for press freedom in Vietnam.

Vietnam also passed an Access of Information law, making it the third country in the region to have such legislation. A key difference with the laws in Indonesia and Thailand is the absence of a body mandated to oversee information requests to government agencies.

The firmly entrenched and worsening trends on pres freedom and freedom of expression issues in Southeast Asia, necessitates the development of stronger advocacy groups at the national level, and increased cooperation at the regional level, especially in the context of regional community building in ASEAN.

However, the regional intergovernmental organization does not appear to be moving to establish stronger human rights mechanisms in the near future, as reflected in the regional community building plans of the organization. Human rights responses appear to be of the tokenist mold, and have subsided after the establishment of a weak regional mechanism and regional instrument like boxes ticked off its to-do list and no hint of a working protection mechanism.  This includes the issue of protecting press freedom and freedom of expression, which is a matter of low priority among ASEAN members as evidenced by the overall movement toward increased state control as described in different countries previously, and antagonism of its leaders toward the media.

However, as a sector that advocates for independence and self-regulation, there exist elements for potential development in regional cooperation that can be explored to promote regional cooperation in the journalist community. With growing regional cooperation and the attendant rise in cross-border issues, the media community is challenged to assert itself to meet the rising information demands of regional community building, which arguably requires intensifying the fight for increased freedoms for the media.

On World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2017, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) shares the following stories that demonstrate the devastating decline of free expression and press freedom in the region.



Country Reports


[Burma] Media in transition and conflict: Challenges for truth and reconciliation

Journalists have been subjected to threats and violence from religious extremists. Those that write about national security, anti-corruption, religion, conflict, land rights, illegal logging and wood smuggling, among other subjects face a certain risk. Most cases against journalists were under the penal code such as the defamation act or trespassing act, and Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.


[Cambodia] Media face tighter controls amid growing crackdown on dissent

Bloggers, journalists, and news outlets have begun to utilise social media in particular as a means of sharing information regarding governance, human rights, and corruption. It should come as no surprise that The Royal Government of Cambodia’s (RGC), which plans to “crush” media outlets that endanger “peace and stability, has begun to devise legislative mechanisms to restrict online criticism.


[Indonesia] The hoax problem and other pressing issues

The surge in number of hoax cases has caused the government to create rules on blocking of websites that contain hoax, pornography, terrorism, religious tension, hate speech, and others that could potentially disturb the stability and peace of the country. The Communications and Information Ministry of Indonesia has blocked more than 800,000 websites.


[Laos] Critical cyberspace shrinks, mainstream press further muted

Discussions on highly sensitive issues and taboo subjects were limited or missing in the mainstream media. Lao netizens, helped by the country’s internet boom, have managed to access taboo information banned in the state. But there were some incidents that prompted the authorities to call some Facebookers, who disseminated news, warning them to share only official local news — which is a big concern because of the intrusive and expansive nature of the state’s internet surveillance network.


[Malaysia] Media groups and journalists fight back against volatile press freedom, free expression situation

The proposed amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 have yet to be tabled in parliament, more than a year since it was first mooted, but changes can already be seen in the operations of certain media outlets. The proposal for news portals and blogs to be registered with the government is also a shadow that looms over daily operations of online media outlets. Having a “big brother” like authority would subject online portals to regulations that had shackled its print and broadcast counterparts.


[Philippines] Signs of continuing press freedom decline under Duterte

There was no progress in the work to decriminalize libel, which is still listed as an offense in the country’s criminal code. The freedom of information (FOI) act, which has failed passage in previous administrations, has been refiled and is already on its second reading in the Congress. There were four journalists killed in the line of duty in the same year, while the number of other attacks and threats was higher than previous years. The election of 2016 changed national leadership as President Benigno Aquino III ended his six year term, turning over the presidency to former mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. The change in the presidency also changed the country’s press freedom landscape.


[Thailand] Free expression and media freedom: Back to zero

Several new government mechanisms were either set up or in the process of establishment to tighten state control over the media at this time and in preparation for the future, not only to restrict professional media but also target online content.


[Timor-Leste] Free media, but still threatened

Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo’s decision to take Timor Post’s editor in chief Lourenco Martins and his journalist Raimundo Oki to court, claiming that they published fake news stories and that it publicly damaged his image and reputation. Though the right of reply was granted to the Prime Minister. Timor Post even publicly apologized at the Palace of the Government for the mistake. But unfortunately, the Prime Minister kept taking the case to the court because of the so-called truth.


[Vietnam] Suppressing rising dissent

2016 later saw continuous harassment of political bloggers, rising violence against peaceful demonstrators, and successive arrests of human rights defenders in the following months.


[Vietnam] ‘Dirty’ journalism in the spotlight

In competing against the popularity of social media and citizen journalism, state-owned media agencies are trapped between maintaining financial independence and content self-censorship. A number of news outlets have been warned and penalised for their failure to protect public interest for involvement in “black public relation strategies” of private firms.


Background on WPFD

Every year, 3 May is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. (Please visit the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s [UNESCO] page for more information.)

This year’s theme: Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies

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