The poor state of press freedom is holding back social progress in Southeast Asia

The fundamental freedom to publish critical opinions about society and government is necessary for genuine democracy and human rights to flourish in the region.

By Zachary Frie

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has published its annual report ranking of the Global State of Press Freedom earlier this month and Southeast Asian countries fared poorly – none of the 11 countries in the ASEAN bloc scored higher than the designation of “difficult situation” by RSF.

RSF ranks countries on the basis of a questionnaire addressed to media professionals, lawyers and sociologists which covers media independence, self-censorship, legislative frameworks and more indicators. RSF then ranks countries on a five-point scale based on their overall score. The five categories range from “good” media situation at the positive end of the scale to “very serious” at the negative end.

Of the 180 countries ranked, the only Southeast Asian country in the top 100 was East Timor, an ASEAN observer state. Vietnam ranked lowest in the region at 175, earning RSF’s worst rating. Singapore and Laos were also included in this designation of the countries with the worst press freedom in the world.

Compared to last year’s ranking, several countries in the region posted modest results improvement, including Thailand and Indonesia. Most countries in Southeast Asia, however, saw their rankings fall, with Malaysia posting the largest drop in the region, fall 18 places in the standings.

In the RSFs report on the situation in Malaysia, they noted that since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came to power in March 2020, media freedom has been significantly curtailed while political propaganda and prosecution of journalists under the sedition and libel increased.

Although the freedom to express dissent and critically examine power structures has been limit throughout the region for years, the continuous rise and strengthening autocratic regimes in Southeast Asia makes calls for changes in the media landscape all the more pressing.

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. flickr photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development shared under a Creative Commons License (BY)

Countries with free media are more likely to support democracy and human rights

Many studiesincluding by the The United Nations, show the link between healthy media environments and well-functioning democratic societies. The crux of the connection lies in the ability of the public to stay informed and hold leaders accountable, which leads to more responsive governments and encourages citizens to participate in public life.

However, when leaders with authoritarian tendencies restrict critical public debate, it erodes healthy democratic systems. As detailed by Freedom House, a US-based advocacy organization, weak or declining press freedom is strongly correlated with weak democracy. There is also a link between a society’s ability to access a healthy media environment and respect for fundamental human rights.

In Myanmar, for example, a crippled free press born of decades of intermittent military rule exacerbates the persecution of the Rohingya minority because the government severely restricts independent fact-checking. Due to state production disinformation and widespread rumors on social media platforms, many Burmese are subject to distorted and incomplete stories about the situation.

This media environment has a strong impact on public perception of the Rohingya crisis: according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a significant portion of the public is concerned that the Rohingya pose a social and religious threat to the country. Although some lament the persecution of the Rohingyas, others are unsympathetic and follow the narrative pushed by ultra-nationalist voices who view the Muslim minority as outsiders.

Since the persecution of Rohingyas escalated in 2016, thousands of Rohingyas have been killed and more 800 000 fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. In Myanmar, around 130,000 Rohingya have been confined in open-air detention centers in Rakhine State.

Len Leng, a former Cambodia Daily reporter, holds a copy of the paper’s last issue before it ceased publishing from Cambodia in 2017. Photo: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, CC BY-SA 4.0via Wikimedia Commons

Growing authoritarianism makes a free and fair press a top priority in Southeast Asia

With the growing threat of militarism and authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, a free press and an informed public are paramount. Despite restrictions on press freedom in the region, many independent and local publications oppose it.

In Cambodia, for example, recent years have seen numerous attempts by the government to disrupt and censor independent media. Journalists are imprisoned on dubious charges and some outlets are under pressure comply with government rhetoric.

One of the largest newspapers in the country, the Cambodia Daily, close in 2017 after the government alleged the newspaper owed $6.3 million in unpaid taxes – a charge that critics say was politically motivated.

the Phnom Penh Postanother of the largest newspapers in the kingdom, was bought in 2018 by a Malaysian businessman linked to a public relations company that worked for the interests of the Cambodian government. Although the government says supports independent media, Human Rights Watch characterized the transfer of ownership of the Phnom Penh Post like “constrained.”

As with the Cambodia Dailythe government alleged that Phnom Penh Post owed the state US dollars3.9 million in taxes. The debt was settled as part of the sale of the newspaper.

A media outlet that opposes media restrictions in Cambodia is CamboJA (Association of Cambodian Journalists Alliance). Instead of bowing down to a government that has repeatedly close the political opposition for over three decadesthe media seeks to practice independent journalism without self-censorship and despite state pressure.

Founded in 2019, CamboJA
covers many sensitive topics in the country, including the conviction of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, forced evictions and protests against the government by those in desperate need of food during the COVID-19 lockdown. Impressed by their work, RSF appointed the outlet in 2020 for their annual press freedom award.

Myanmar, meanwhile, is experiencing its own resurgence of small media outlets seeking to expose the junta’s crimes and shine a light on protest efforts. As the country is ravaged by violence against civilians protesting against the military government, including its repress in the independent written press, underground media such as the The voice of spring help to fill the void.

In a country where internet usage rates fluctuate 50% of the total population, the founder and sole member of the team behind voice of spring
understood the importance of print media and started using it to distribute articles. Talk with Southeast Asia Globe, voice of spring Ko Naing editor detailed how he had to find secret places to print the publication.

As authoritarian governments in the region restrict independent media in order to maintain their grip on power, the work of independent media in the region should be recognized and supported wherever possible. Without a free and independent press, societies under authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia are less likely to find a way out.

Pamela W. Robbins