Challanges on Press Freedom in SE Asia


Whilst Southeast Asian countries are not the worst countries for journalists, according to RSF 2017 World Press Freedom Index they are among countries with low rank on press freedom. Out of the 180 countries ranked by RSF, the best rank earned by a Southeast Asian country is 98 for Timor Leste. 

Infographic by Natasya Dondo Rizky

Challenges to press freedom in Southeast Asia –including the abusive nature of the state, armed with archaic laws in this region– have proven to be the utmost loyal apparatus for years. However, what’s more alarming is the devilish impunity towards journalists which puts their life at a stake. Fear and concern over truthful reporting is being replaced by the ‘fear of staying alive’ in the course of reporting.

Main Challenges

The main challenges to the freedom of press in Southeast Asian countries vary in each country, from government threats to the law to public denigration of media outlets.

  1. East Timor

Holding the highest score of press freedom index among any other southeast Asian countries, Timor-Leste still profoundly struggling to exercise their right to express. Subjugated by draconian media law and various pressures such as legal proceedings and public denigration, the press often found themselves being bullied by the government and victim to police violence.

  1. Indonesia

After defeating the Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998, the post-reformation period sees the new era of Indonesia with the country embracing the principles and values of democracy. The 1999 Press Law was an attempt in bringing the press freedom as a serious agenda on the path of real democracy.

Though censorship by the state is not a specter to be worried about, the intimidation and violence against journalists by the military and radical religious groups are intolerable. This often leads to the practice of self-censorship to prevent themselves from being a victim of the Electronic and Information Transactions Law and anti-blasphemy law.

  1. Philippines

In the last 30 years, unsurprisingly, the number of journalists killed in Philippines were higher than any other southeast Asian countries. With 151 journalists killed while pursuing the stories of corruptions dealing with law enforcers and illegal gambling, an average of nine to 10 deaths took place in a time span of 10 years.

While the death rate reduced to merely two since Duterte ascends to power, the fear shifted from the other factors to Duterte himself who are lambasting media as propagating false news about him. Private militias also has the capacity to silence journalists with complete impunity, especially with the president’s encouragement of violence against journalists.

  1. Cambodia

On one hand, the government of Cambodia preserves and promotes a healthy relationship with leading media owners and the media outlets. On the other hand, the government consistently hostile towards independent media, which invokes the question of equity and fairness.

It also sends an abstract message that these media have to be nice to the government to keep their business alive. In other words, write what’s positive and make sure the government is happy with you.

On July 2016, a famous political commentator Kem Ley was murdered after receiving anonymous death threats and fiery criticisms from the Prime Minister’s relatives.

  1. Thailand

Enriched with the history of countless military coup, Thailand is a bundle of surprises. Numerous laws have been enacted by the government to ensure what’s being circulated to the public are not hazardous for the monarchs, administration and the leaders of the country.

Having two monitoring bodies, consisting of Military Media Monitoring Unit and Police Media Monitoring Unit with the assistance from Cyber Scout, it is undesirable truth that journalists are under permanent surveillance.

  1. Malaysia

Not to differ from other southeast Asian countries, Malaysia still believes that press freedom is impossible to be promulgated. Laws upon laws, from Sedition Act to Malaysia Communication and Multimedia Commission Act, journalists along with the civil society are not allowed to freely express their thoughts as it perceived to be detrimental to the nation’s peace and harmony. With countless allegations and charges against media user, the alternative and opposing voices are squashed down.  

  1. Singapore

One of the richest country in southeast Asia, Singapore developed quite rapidly, but at the expenses of human rights and many other basic rights of human being. The ruling government doesn’t hesitate to sue and pressurize to make its detractors unemployable or to the worst, forced to leave the country. Self-censorship and censorship by the Media Development Authority is a violation towards press freedom.

  1. Brunei

Self-censorship and the authorities sometimes intervene, but in most cases the country’s repressive legislation is enough to repress anything which could be interpreted as criticism or blasphemy of the Sultanate.

  1. Laos

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) exercise absolute control over the media. Internet users who criticize the LPRP and the government can be imprisoned, and there are only three out of 40 TV channels which are privately-owned. Foreign media which set up office in Laos must submit their content to LPRP for censorship before publishing or broadcasting it.

  1. Vietnam

Taking the pride of having the second largest prize for citizen journalists in the world, Vietnam, under the Communist Party are well known for its authoritarian form of ruling, Predominantly, all the media are controlled by the state and sources of independently-reported information (bloggers and citizen journalists) are subjected to harsh persecution.

Executive Director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Edgardo Legaspi, shared his perspective during a discussion in 2017 WPFD. Photo by Jing Yi.

Press Freedom, Freedom of Expression, Protection of Privacy

The three concepts are often mentioned in correlation to each other, but how actually are they connected?

“The press has an important role in regards to freedom of expression, especially if there’s problem, the press is able to ask the officials for clarification and so could be conveyed to the people,” Edgardo Legaspi, Executive Director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), said. 

“They help the public gain information to be able to decide and to speak to the government, to practice their own freedom of expression. So that is like a subsidiary, but instead about the rights of journalists, the responsibility of journalists who promote freedom of expression to the public, for the public, in behalf of the public.”

It’s about being able to separate, to be able to decide what we want to share and what we don’t want to share.

Legaspi said the right to privacy was with regards to how we conduct communication.

“Like you preventing the government from being able to intercept their images, to get your identity to follow you. So right now that’s not just concerning the government, it’s concerning the big social media, because we have lots of information in social media that we share, whether we like it or not.”

He concluded that we need to ensure that private information is protected.  

It’s about being able to separate, to be able to decide what we want to share and what we don’t want to share. What we don’t want to share, those things must be kept private. So it’s a very complex issue, because of the rise of the Internet now underpins freedom of expression, the practice of freedom of expression,” Legaspi said. 

Challenges in Setting Up the Initiatives

The safety of journalists and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia is not without any challenges.

We still believe in ASEAN. We are not giving up on ASEAN but we need to make it work.

“In ASEAN, there is not really much room to work,” Legaspi said. “And we know the bigger problem perhaps is that ASEAN not really full of freedom of expression in general. That’s why we must be independent mechanism. We still believe in ASEAN. We are not giving up on ASEAN but we need to make it work.”

The level of press freedom in South East Asia was discussed on the second day of World Press Freedom at JCC, Merak II. From left to right: Ryan Rosauro, Ratna Komala, Sopheap Chak, Pinpaka Ngamsom and Edgardo Legaspi. (Photo by Jing Yi/VOM)

What can be done and what is to be done?

To ensure freedom of expression issues are high on the agenda of human rights commissions, we need to make our case, Legaspi said. 

“Freedom of expression is an important issue in ASEAN, for the sake of ASEAN’s development because freedom of expression means that the government can count on the people to discuss development and people are able to get information from the government to be able to decide their development. That’s what we need to do.”

Media must be able to decide what kind of things that they want to write about, what kind of things that they want to publish, we should be free from government intervention.

“We are planning to organize a meeting to further discuss the idea of a regional mechanism To show that we can take it forward because it’s not about advocacy. It’s really getting together and planning concrete steps to make this real.”

By Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvan and Jennifer Sidharta

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