Journalists are being crushed in South-East Asia
WAITING in a shuttered Cambodian newsroom for the police to arrive would test any journalist’s nerve. Flickering strobe lights illuminate empty desks and abandoned pens. Unexpected noises invite alarm. But across South-East Asia—a region of 11 countries and more than 640m people—journalists have learned to expect trouble. Governments have come up with a variety of schemes to repress the press, from tax ruses and takeovers to intimidation and cynical crusades against “fake news”.
Nigeria, Kuwait and Ukraine all enjoy more press freedom than any South-East Asian country, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a watchdog. After East Timor, Indonesia does best in the region, coming 124th out of 180 countries on RWB’s global index. Vietnam comes 175th, beating only gag-happy dictatorships such as China, Turkmenistan and North Korea.
The past twelve months have been particularly grim for journalists and bloggers in South-East Asia. From beatings in Vietnam to arrests in Myanmar, censorship in Thailand to punitive laws in Malaysia, authoritarian regimes are tightening the muzzles over their people’s mouths.
The nastiest campaign against press freedom is taking place in Cambodia ahead of national elections on July 29th. In recent weeks the government ordered websites to register with the country’s information ministry. It says it wants to stop people from spreading “fake news”. Those deemed to have done so may be fined $1,000 and locked up for two years. Both of Cambodia’s most prestigious independent newspapers have been nobbled in recent months. One was hit with a huge tax bill, forcing it to close. The other was bought by a Malaysian investor who had dealings with the government of Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for more than three decades. Dozens of radio frequencies broadcasting independent news programmes have been taken off air. Television is controlled by the government. The influential online outlets that remain, such as Fresh News, now function as mere mouthpieces for the regime. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Supreme Court has disbanded the opposition party and its leader languishes in prison awaiting trial for treason. Mr Hun Sen cannot lose on polling day, and disgruntled Cambodians cannot publicly complain.
Vietnam’s government is energetically silencing critics, too. This month lawmakers in the one-party state approved a sweeping cyber-security law that would push social media firms to remove content the government dislikes and to reveal the identities of those who use their platforms to spread dissent. Offline, thugs already follow, threaten and sometimes attack activists critical of the Communist regime. In Thailand tough cyber-security laws curb online activity with the threat of prison sentences. Other rules limit political activity and brutally punish criticism of the royal family. The junta in charge, which seized power in a coup in 2014, has sent the country’s nosier journalists to camps for “re-education”. In Myanmar two reporters working for Reuters (one is pictured above), a big news wire, have been detained since December 2017 over reporting on police documents related to the killing of ten Rohingya men and boys. This month they were charged with obtaining secret state documents under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty. Both men plead their innocence. A Burmese policeman, himself now behind bars, says the two were framed.
Several countries have jumped on the “we must fight fake news” bandwagon. In February Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, banned a local news website, Rappler, from covering his events because he deemed its reports criticising his policies to be untrue. Oddly, Mr Duterte takes a more lenient line with claptrap written in his favour (the Philippines is drowning in false accounts of non-existent accolades for the great man).
In Malaysia the administration of Najib Razak, the prime minister who was tossed out by voters in May, introduced a rule shortly before that to combat undesirable reporting. Those found guilty of either publishing or spreading fake news, vaguely defined, face up to six years in prison. Critics scoffed that the real aim was to discourage reporting on corruption allegations ahead of voting day. If so it did Mr Najib little good; he still lost. The new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who also ran the country for two decades until 2003, is only making muted noises about amending the rule. Even serene Singapore, which already has ultra-tough defamation laws, is considering further action against “deliberate online falsehoods”. Officials say the speed of sharing on digital platforms may demand new rules.
In a region cursed with rampant cronyism, any move to silence criticism of the mighty is worrying. As journalism declines, autocrats and kleptocrats find it easier to oppress and loot unobserved. Foreign allies that might once have protested, such as America, are less inclined to do so. Europeans fear that if they do, they will cede influence to China, whose government does not care about human rights. Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the “fake news media” positively encourages the mistreatment of journalists. Ministers from Kuala Lumpur to Manila gleefully quote Mr Trump when asked about their dealings with the press. Censorship makes bad governments less accountable. For many in South-East Asia, that is the point.
Facebooker bị truy tố theo Điều 331 vì “nói xấu” lãnh đạo Đảng
August 6, 2021
Thượng Nghị sĩ Cornyn yêu cầu Hoa Kỳ thúc đẩy nhân quyền Việt Nam
August 6, 2021
JOINT OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA D. HARRIS
August 5, 2021
THƯ KHÔNG NIÊM KÍNH GỞI PHÓ TỔNG THỐNG KAMALA D. HARRIS
August 5, 2021
Dân biểu Úc nêu trường hợp tù chính trị Châu Văn Khảm với Bộ trưởng Ngoại giao Úc
July 30, 2021
Mỹ quan ngại việc chính quyền Đăk Lăk sách nhiễu tín đồ Tin lành thiểu số
July 29, 2021
Prisoner of conscience Nguyen Hoang Nam: Vietnam’s police deploy trained dogs to suppress prisoners at Xuan Loc Prison camp
July 28, 2021
Tù nhân lương tâm Nguyễn Hoàng Nam: cảnh sát cho chó đàn áp tù nhân ở trại Xuân Lộc
July 28, 2021
Tuần tin Người Bảo vệ Nhân quyền, tuần thứ 29 từ ngày 19/7 đến 25/7/2021: Hai Facebooker bị kết án tù dài hạn vì viết và chia sẻ trên Facebook
July 27, 2021
Vietnam Human Rights Defenders’ Weekly Report for July 19-25, 2021: Two Facebookers Convicted of Anti-state Posts with Lengthy Imprisonments
July 27, 2021