Southeast Asia’s Imperiled Media Landscape

TIME recently named those journalists who have been jailed or lost their lives as its 2018 Person of the Year. The magazine praises the so-called “Guardians” as a critical bulwark against the growing War on Truth. From the killing of Saudi Journalist Jamal Kashoggi in October to the impending “tax fraud” trial of Maria Ressa in the Philippines, the fourth estate has been under a mounting assault around the world. Despite the hope of technological advance and the broad availability of information, governments now resort to restricting digital space and punishing those that strive for accountability. TIME writes:   

This ought to be a time when democracy leaps forward, an informed citizenry being essential to self-government. Instead, it’s in retreat. Three decades after the Cold War defeat of a blunt and crude autocracy, a more clever brand takes nourishment from the murk that surrounds us. The old-school despot embraced censorship. The modern despot, finding that more difficult, foments mistrust of credible fact, thrives on the confusion loosed by social media and fashions the illusion of legitimacy from supplicants.

In many ways, 2018 indeed feels like a watershed. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently reported that the jailing of journalists and bloggers around the world has become the “new normal”. By their count, there are over 250 journalists imprisoned in 24 countries, with Turkey leading the pack. And unsurprisingly, internet freedom, like investigative journalism, has been increasingly under assault by governments across Southeast Asia. Since 2013, western outfits like TIME and the Guardian have documented an alarming uptick in restricting access to news reports and imprisoning activist bloggers. The foreign policy blog, War on the Rocks, writes that the media landscape across Southeast Asia is decidedly bleak, reflecting an overall downward trend in democracy across the region.

Sadly, I would have to agree. Throughout my travels this Fall, I repeatedly encountered limited access to sites like Human Rights Watch, the Associated Press, Amnesty International, and a slew of others. I observed that journalism was under attack in most places I visited. As I crossed the borders of Turkey, Thailand, and Vietnam, the subtle censorship of heavy-handed government officials came into stark focus. The re-emergence of Wikipedia in Thailand or the quiet disappearance of Human Rights Watch in Vietnam spoke volumes.

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Reading the Myanmar Times on a Train in Yangon, October 2018

And this spotty access naturally created obstacles to my digital research on democracy, civil society, and current events. My own dismay during my travels was no anomaly. I came across blog posts suggesting clever strategies for the snoopy backpacker to circumvent internet firewalls and blocked websites. But while most travel experts outline step-by-step hacks to ensure regular connectivity to Facebook and Instagram, there are few that emphasize internet freedom for the sake of accessing the news. That’s a missed opportunity. While there are myriad organizations that continue to lobby for a free and open internet, setbacks abound. The revelation that Google hoped to secretly launch its autocracy-friendly Project Dragonfly in China or Facebook’s inability–or outright avoidance–to regulate hate speech in Myanmar reveal an increasingly fraught digital space. While Silicon Valley’s profiteering from online censorship is under increasing scrutiny, fewer seemed concerned with government censorship. And there is no doubt that governments across Southeast Asia are taking steps to stifle journalists and muffle the internet.

Retreating Journalism and A Shrinking Digital Space in Southeast Asia

Thailand was the starting point for my backpacking trip this past September. The military junta, in lockstep with the monarchy, has been quietly reducing journalistic independence and constricting digital freedom. With one of the most restrictive and punitive Lese-Mageste Laws in the world, Thailand has selectively applied these laws towards bloggers and journalists that criticize the King. The law’s enforcement provision, Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, says anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” will receive a jail term between three and 15 years. Last year, six students were detained for posting insulting remarks about King under these provisions. Moreover, the increasingly ambiguous Computer Crimes Act proposes that individuals who knowingly enter false data into a computer and jeopardize national security may receive up to a five-year jail sentence or 1000 Thai Baht fine.

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Then there is the curious case of Thailand’s restriction of journalism on behalf of its neighbors. Most recently, Thailand detained and deported a journalist back to Cambodia after Hun Sen’s government sought extradition on the charge of fake news. Moreover, the day I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thai police led a crackdown on a meeting of Thailand’s Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. The group was hosting a gathering to discuss how to best report on the Rohingya crisis and evaluate whether Myanmar’s military should be held accountable for war crimes. Despite Thailand’s poor treatment of Rohingya refugees in the past, the journalistic dimension of this crackdown suggests a deepening collusion with the Burmese government.

While Myanmar’s media industry has blossomed since its rapprochement with the West, reporting on the military’s “clearance operations” in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states remains dangerous. This has been most prominent with coverage of the Rohingya genocide. Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have now been imprisoned for a year after they reported on a military massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din. Moreover, shortly before my arrival in Myanmar in October, three journalists from Eleven Media were arrested after they allegedly published “incorrect information” regarding dubious public spending. The exercise of archaic, colonial media laws remains an important tool for the government, including the notorious Section 66D of the 2013 Telecommunications Law. Human Rights Watch notes that the law is a criminal provision that can incarcerate Burmese citizens for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.”

Despite the selective repression of journalists, the internet in Myanmar has remained fairly free with a few exceptions. With only six blocked sites among thousands tested, Myanmar’s digital space continues to operate openly according to the 2017 Open Observatory of Network Interference report. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s issues with hate speech have led to increasingly dubious practices by the government. The establishment of its “Social Media Monitoring Team” appears to target pro-Rohingya activists and journalists.

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Freedom of the Net Average

                    Source: Freedom of the Net, Freedom House                                    (0=High Internet Freedom, 100=No Internet Freedom)

As the country I spent the most time in, Vietnam is far from a reporter’s paradise. With its state-controlled media, Vietnam has struggled to advance a more diverse and critical journalistic space over the years. In an email correspondence with Tran Le Thuy, the Director and Founder of the Centre for Media and Development Initiatives in Vietnam, she remarked that forbidden topics in investigative journalism might include those stories that provoke anti-government protests. Thuy pointed out that investigative journalism that challenges the government’s authority can be risky. “The government seems to consider the mainstream media as a source for power control. Therefore, they might allow a certain kind of investigative journalism.” As a result, there are few stories that directly address government accountability and investigate escalating fraud.

Moreover, the revolving door of arrested and freed bloggers has showcased the Vietnamese government’s selective crackdown on dissidents. Despite the recent release of blogger Mother Mushroom in mid-October, another Vietnamese activist was jailed earlier that week after distributing 3,300 leaflets calling on workers to protest a proposed law on special economic zones. Nicholas Bequilin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and South Asia, commented that “While Mother Mushroom is no longer imprisoned, the condition for her release was exile and there are over one hundred people languishing in jail because they peacefully spoke their mind – in public, on blogs or on Facebook.”

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While Vietnam overtly embraces one-party rule, Cambodia’s landscape is more complex. Forbes journalist Erin Hale describes Cambodia as having excelled in enforcing “low-grade repression” by slapping small jail sentences on select bloggers and groups. Cambodia’s own internet freedom declined in 2018 after Freedom House noted several concerning developments. First and foremost was the shutdown of the Cambodia Daily in 2017 for a “failure to pay taxes”. In addition, Freedom House cites the April 2017 arrest of a woman who used Facebook to accuse President Hun Sen’s family as complicit in the murder of political analyst Kem Ley. Despite increasing smartphone adoption, ongoing restrictions to internet connectivity, including obstacles to access and limits on content, have posed a challenge to Cambodia’s digital openness.

While I only spent six days in Cambodia, these troubling developments were confirmed by several Cambodians who lamented the creeping repression of Hun Sen’s 33 year rule. This past July’s elections drew international condemnation due to Hun Sen’s repeated repression of the opposition party and overt voter intimidation. In the run-up to the election, a variety of media outlets were shut down, including Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, which have long been considered stalwarts of promoting democracy in the region.

Imprisoned Journalists Image

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

Ultimately, the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has revealed that most Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, all fall into the lower third of the press freedom rankings. Vietnam is the most glaring, with a rank of 175 out of 180, resting between repressive Sudan and communist China. To summarize the dangers to press freedom, RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire ominously declared that “The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies.”

Towards the Future: Prospects for Hope and Reform

Yet not all is doom and gloom in the battle for open spaces and investigative journalism around Southeast Asia. TIME‘s selection of endangered journalists as its Person of the Year has illuminated the value of investigative journalism and the need for its defense. Other news outlets have also stepped up their reporting in the region. Additionally, NGOs have led the charge to safeguard press freedom and report attacks on digital space. The Committee to Protect Journalists regularly provides advocacy tools to those who are threatened while RSF pitches national legislation and proposes international agreements to protect reporters under threat. The World Wide Web Foundation, in its recent report “The Case #ForTheWeb“, also provides a comprehensive roadmap for protecting individual privacy and preserving net neutrality.

In Vietnam, Tran Le Thuy notes that certain forms of investigative journalism are gaining traction in the country, especially in light of the 2012 Doan Van Vuan case. During that incident, Vietnamese officials attempted to evict fish farmer Doan Van Vuan from his homestead and Vuan took up arms against the police in the ensuing struggle. Most farmers in Vietnam have 20-year land leases that were issued by the government in 1993. Despite this protection, the government still attempted to evict Vuan without proper compensation, spurring his decision to resist arrest. The case was unusual due to the unified outcry of support for Vuan, as bloggers, journalists, social media, and even Communist officials condemned the overreach. The case has resulted in a legislative review of the landholding law that caused the incident in the first place, providing an opportunity for journalists to expose Vietnam’s entrenched graft.

Despite the political overtones of today’s corruption in Vietnam, Thuy notes that there are several changes that could empower journalists to better do their jobs. “I think there should be stronger effort to improve [the] legal framework in which journalism for [the] public interest is clearly defensed/protected in law. There should be more effective training on professional skills to avoid professional mistakes for investigative journalists. There should also be financial support/business models for media outlets in order to sustain quality investigative journalism.” Her center is leading the charge inviting budding reporters to attend workshops that encourage investigative and data-driven journalism in Vietnam.

Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are also distributing grants to civil society organizations in both Vietnam and Thailand. In the latter, NED’s $30,000 grant to the Thailand Information Center has produced reports that emphasize the importance of safeguarding human rights and ensuring a smooth election turnout this coming February. And despite setbacks in Myanmar, several civil society groups have shared potential policy solutions that Facebook could employ to preclude the dissemination of hate speech in the future. Despite Facebook’s negative impact in places like Myanmar, the platform still might serve as a critical lynchpin in neighboring countries. Vietnam is a prominent example. Although the Party occasionally clamps down on social media platforms, many Couchsurfers and locals still touted Facebook as an essential organizing platform for protestors and dissidents.

As we approach the start of 2019, the landscape looks admittedly bleak. And yet, continued reporting in Southeast Asia and ongoing digital activism provide a glimmer of hope. TIME’s stirring tribute to “The Guardians” and their battle for truth may provide the most powerful message yet for aspiring journalists and democracy activists around the world. “The strongmen of the world only look strong. All despots live in fear of their people. To see genuine strength, look to the spaces where individuals dare to describe what’s going on in front of them.”

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